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Route 66 and the American Culture

Page history last edited by Stacy Takacs 11 years, 9 months ago

 

 

Introduction

 

 

 

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving”

 

Lao Tzu (570 490 BC)

 

     In choosing the topic of an “old highway” to explain the American structure relating to the social relevance to this class, the foundation of symbols, legends, and the historical significance of infrastructure comes to light. The history of travel dates back to the very origins of American history and builds upon the act a foundation that enables other, future travelers to “reclaim” a continuation of what now can be termed” living history.”

 

  The significance of establishing, or put into motion for the creation of set symbols such as eye catching road signs, diners, motels and even molding the first “gas stations” along a road may seem “common sense” to society in the Twenty-first Century, but the need had to first be present in order to allow for the American ingenuity of advertising and catering to a new sector of society to grow.

 

    The open road is historically attached to the history of the automobile in such a unique way, no other country in the world can compare to it. Only the United States had a country so vast and open, that regional isolation allowed for different social taste and attitudes to develop independent of the whole. That being said, the country became divided within itself into smaller countries with specific cultures and people came to recognize one region from another simply by listening to the “foreign accent” of the traveler.

 

    Henry Ford and the introduction of the Model T enabled thousands of average citizens to own an automobile and develop a generational love affair that has withstood the test of time.  When isolation slowly began to fall away through family travels, the mixing of East and West became more accessible and reinvented to American traveler all over again.

 

      Regarding history, in the nineteenth century the concept of road construction was in its infancy; the populated eastern United States, where the first automobiles were first being introduced were at best very primitive. These new “horseless carriage” did not compete well with the horse and buggy on narrow, dirt roads. Since the responsibility of construction lay with local state and county governments, there was little coordination to try and unite these little rutted trails to populated centers. The railroad system provided routes where landforms dictated, yet for massive transportation of goods and necessities only with no thought of recreational use. The tracks followed the traditional trails that the Native Americans, fur trappers, and later, the wagon trains brought migrating settlers West followed. Here is the first sign that automobiles would eventually travel the same routes that helped direct the early Americans across the Midwest on to the West Coast. ( Past Lane)

 

    During the Great Depression, the Federal government created many programs to help stimulate the economy and put people to work. The urgent need for the massive numbers of unemployed populations created the Public Works Administration (PWA), The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and The Works Progress Administration (WPA).  Although the construction was taking place, little overall thought into connecting one state to another, still remained second priority. The local communities often campaigned to have their towns included in accessing the now paved roads. The 66 highway was up till this point, halfway paved. The New Deal provided the money to improve the road in the western states; “by 1938, the last section of Route 66 was finally paved through the California desert.

 

    The Bureau of Public Roads began to establish a system to link towns and business centers by one standard of a uniform through routes and a set system for p sting them. In 1924, the U.S. Highway system was born. Businessmen and lobbyist and communities along the proposed route sought to link the Midwest hub of Chicago Illinois, to the west coast city of Lao Angles California. The two most influential persons responsible for bringing Route 66 through the southern sates were Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri.

 

    The new concept of a “Highway” marked the nation’s first attempt to designate and present a uniformed and standardized American highway system to alleviate a great deal of confusion to the traveling motorist. “The route numbers were assigned based on geography. North-south routes received odd numbers, and east-west routes received even numbers.” The numbering system started in the upper northeast part of the country in Main with Route 2 and went in ascending order as it moved south.

 

    A dispute in claiming Route 60 as the name for the western portion of the highway between Avery and officials in Kentucky and Virginia who wanted that designation was resolved in randomly choosing the number “66.” From this point on, the route followed the National Old Trails Road all the way through to California. Here is where the attractions of traveling “West” begin to draw the legendary aspects of traveling so unique to America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Connection to Primary source

 

 

 

    An analysis of the significance of America’s westward migration and identification can begin with a bulletin posted in 1890, by the Superintendent of the Census. In explaining the graphing of the movement westward by increments of advancing civilization, the Census reported that “the frontier has been so broken up by isolated bodies of settlements, there can hardly be an actual frontier line in mapping its extent,” thus in one official statement, the existence of an area of free land, constantly being recessed, has come to an end and the creation of the American “construct” began. The broader sequence of migration needs to be detailed to suggest the cultural implications of America’s evolving inhabitants. (Turner p2)

 

    The unique sequence of developing America originates at the Atlantic Coast with established institutions in the form of colonies in the northeast. Once the progress of construction over wilderness was complete that, according to Calhoun in 1871, is the “primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier civilizing into the complexity of city life,” civilization will naturally begins the expansion process all over again. The distinguishing feature of westward Americans was in the traveling itself. The land proved to be endless, so the “reoccurrence of the process of returning to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line” proved to develop strings of American culture with one region separate from another. (2)

 

    The constant confronting of savagery and creating civilization, (however primitive) molded an American character completely independent from their European forefathers. Thus it can be argued that environment of the wilderness and constant westward movement produced uniquely organic Americans that, over time, fostered an identity towards individualism, freedom, and most telling, a separate form of ideology between West and East populations in America. From this point on, the perception and characteristics of the West, (minus California) becomes a hostile, lawless land of fierce Indians tribes, roving Mexican gangs, and inhospitably harsh lands unwelcoming to Christian settlers. The character of a region must be marked by a distinct position to demarcate civilized land form hostile land. The country’s broad landscape serves just such a purpose in natural fall lines; in the seventeenth century the line was the Allegheny Mountains in the northeast, the Mississippi River running basically North to South represented the fall line in the beginning of the eighteenth  century, the Missouri River created the line in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The most distinguished line, the ninety-ninth meridian, as referenced by Frederick Jackson Turner’s, The Frontier in American History, divides the land mass westward from this longitude as being a land filled with immigrants “Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristic” (p23). Out of this turmoil of humanity the dominate true virtuous people will emerge and plant God’s democracy in a soulless land. Turner contends a “tradition of succeeding generations ought to find in the Republic a better home” (p290). His perspective in occupying the Americas is the natural migration and claiming of land and natural resources previously inhabited by a lesser people. This is a common theme across world history; however, the unique perspective placed upon the struggle of possession and dominance in America is one of divine intervention and heroic (man made) symbols to champion the cause of occupation.

 

    The primary source of contradiction is Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. Here the opposite themes and myths of civilizing the Western frontier is made. The novel suggests an indifferent attitude towards what Americans championed as essential towards civilization: life, justice, and religious believes. The expansion of the West is not a natural process such as the turning of the turning of the seasons, yet of all documentations proving the brutality of occupation, the popular unsubstantiated myths still hold the modern publics attention. Why?         

 

 

 

 

 

Pop Culture West

 

     For most Americans, the west holds myth and legends alike to be an actual part of our unique heritage regardless of historical accuracies, more so, “the culture of the west has been illustrated in countless media sources; television, dime-novels, movies, live performances, and mass-produced products.” Regardless of fact or fiction, the “pop culture West” holds a positive response to audiences through out the generations and for different reasons (Aquila p1). Still the question as to why these myths supersede actual reality remains.

 

    The emergence of the Industrial Revolution in the later part of the nineteenth century created a need for the growing Eastern populations of the country to “re-identify” or in this case, recreate an image that coincides with America’s historical customs and heroic roles; what was needed in the wake of urbanization was the desire of affirmation of individual freedoms that the “Old West” Championed. The result was the advent of the traveling Wild West Shows and rodeos reliving the triumph, glory days of the American past. These institutionalized ceremonies catered to the yearnings of the popular myths and ignored “historical accuracy in favor of nostalgia and the satisfaction of hegemonic needs of constituencies to reinforce self-identity” (73). The urban population, more specifically the male population, having been driven into industrialized urban settings, became uncertain as to the role of men in the nineteenth century. The desire to return to the eighteenth century through these western performers re-established the role of “real men”

 

    The pop culture West remains a powerful concept dating back to actual historical events, however, the need to reestablish the image of a modern America being bombarded by contemporary issues that fractured legends and myths demanded the resurrection of popular images, regardless of truth. This is the answer of how the Western frontier remains to be central in the “common sense” of America.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Songs of the Road

 

  The history of Route 66 is only relevant with the realities of those who experienced the time line of its significance. Traveling the “Mother Road” has many meanings through out the life of the people and the times of travel. One enormous impact that brought people and the road depending on each other was the event of the Dust Bowl era. “On May 10 and 11, 1934, a dust storm blew 300 million tons of topsoil away from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas. Kansas and Colorado” (Kelly p57). The massive drought forced many families in the region to flee the never ending dust and sand and seek a better climate for work and opportunities. The massive wave of migrants, displaced families, and drifters may have originated from a wide diversity of backgrounds spread out over several states, yet they all came together in a uniformed cause and direction; West on U.S. Highway Route 66.

 

    Soon the sight of old cars streaming along laden with a family members, cousins and their possessions tied haphazardly to the sides resembled a poor worn out caravan of destitute people numbly moving westward. Mattresses tied to the rooftops, pigs and roosters in cages towards the rear, iron skillets and canvas bags of water dangling on all sides, marked these travelers as representing a movement, a fleeing away from poor economic conditions. Out of this event, the term “Okies” was coined as a reference to down and out travelers, regardless of their origins. The relevance of the Dust Bowl days, the people who experienced it, and Route 66, soon came to the nation’s attention by way of a novel and road ballads representing both, the good and bad associations of Route 66. 

 

    The literature impact of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, gave words to the plight of the country’s impoverished people of the Southwest fleeing the dramatic effects of the drought years and forcing thousands of rural farmers and laborers to take up a migration to better fortunes to the West. Once again, the significance of Route 66 adds to the shaping to this portion of American history.                      

 

    The novel focuses on the effects of the Great Depression and a poor family of sharecroppers driven from their home by a combination of drought and ambiguous bankers’ systematically foreclosing on family farms through out the Midwest. The massive waves of homeless families were pushed westward towards California’s abundant agriculture in the Central valley. Although the Joads family from Oklahoma are the main focus in the story, their plight can be seen to represent the thousands of similar families that began the migration along Route 66.

 

    Another medium that brought public attention to the traveler’s plight west was the collection of “Dust Bowl Ballads by the folk singer, Woody Guthrie. A sometimes singer songwriter, sometimes tramp, rail-hopping hobo; Woody Guthrie recalls first hand the events of the drought and forced migration that enabled him to sing about the heaviness of being poor and homeless. Many of his songs told the tales of hard barren living with little sympathy from the government or the surrounding populations that looked down on the migrant worker. A native of Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie wrote how the state of California passed the “Anti-Okie Law” which stated a person that brings in or assists in bringing into the State of California any indigent person who is not a resident; is guilty of a misdemeanor.” (Section 261 St. 1937, p1406)

 

    About his song Do-Re-Mi, Woody explains, “For years people have been picken’ up and leavin’ out of the drought country…a-comin’ to California…I ain’t a-discouragin’ nobody to be comin’…about the song…it tells a LOT of truth.” (Folkways) The lyrics tell of the journey of the poor with bright hopes of reaching a”promise land” only to find they are not welcomed with out money. Woody sings:

 

          ‘cross the desert sands they roll, getting’ out of that old dust bowl

 

         They think they’re goin’ to a sugar bowl, but here’s what they find,

 

         Now, the police at the port of entry say.

 

         “you’re number fourteen thousand for today.

 

         Oh, if you ain’t got the do-re-mi folks.

 

         why you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee,

 

The meaning according to Woody Guthrie demonstrates that people are good and honest, that is, the migrant’s intentions are not their choice; still they are people trying to make a living. The other part of the song implies that government is impeding the progress of these migrants from obtaining a lively hood, yet if the have money (do) they would be welcomed with open arms.

 

    The period of drought, depression, and war did come to pass and another mood over took the country and presented another aspect of Route 66.  America experienced a post World War II economic boost that shed a happier, more exciting and optimistic feeling within the country.  After the long years of rationing and war, America was poised to reap the harvest of industrial productions now focusing on items of convince and leisure rather then war production. The long lost love affair of the automobile came roaring back. Americans did not need a reason to travel and the optimistic spirit was put to song in Bobby Troup’s “Get Your Kicks On Route 66.” The catchy lyrics and quick beat reflected the spirit of the baby boom era after WWII. The fascination with going west, living your dreams, and inventing yourself resound in the music of this era,” As part of a marketing ploy to directed at tourism Bobby Troup penned the flow of the song to excite the traveler along the entire route and thus created the appeal of “America’s Main Street” to take hold. The song urges:

 

         If you ever plan to motor west:

 

         Travel my way, the highway that’s the best.

 

         Get your kicks on Route 66!

 

         It winds from Chicago to L. A.,

 

         More than 2,000 miles all the way,

 

The song leads the traveler along, from East to West touching all the cities along the eights states beckoning” Won’t you…get hip to this timely trip: when you …make that California trip!!!

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

 

 

 

    The feel for American Studies spans the broad spectrum of this country both in terms of boundaries and in time. Both of which must be looked at in terms of relevancy and public association to the object or subject being discussed. If there is a consistency then it can be argued that it has a place in the spectrum. Route 66, has filled the required quota from embracing the people of America through out the generations and providing a stable object that in our eyes transitions from history to legacy, from a utility object to American icon. In a national perspective, the paving the way for westward travel establishes our past and, as one zooms down the highway, confirms the present. In light of the modern Interstate community, old U.S. Highway 66 will prevail well into the future.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

 

 

 

Aquila, Richard. Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture. Urbana:

 

 

 

         University of Illinois Press, 1996.

 

 

 

Bischoff C. Matt. Life in the Past Lane: The Route 66 Experience. U.S. Department of the

 

 

 

         Interior: Tucson, 2005.

 

 

 

Encyclopedia of Road Subculture. 2007. 5 December. 2008.

 

 

 

http://wwwdigihitch.com/road-culture/music-lyrics/388

 

 

 

Guthrie, Woody and Lead Belly. Folkways. Smithsonian Folkways Recording. Washington DC.

 

 

 

         2005.

 

 

 

Kelly C. Susan. Rout 66: The Highway and Its People. Norman: Oklahoma Press, 1988.

 

 

 

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian: The Evening Redness in the West. New York: Vintage

 

 

 

         Books, 1992.

 

 

 

Turner, J. Frederick. The Frontier in American History. New York: Dover Publication, Inc. 1996.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 

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