Driving Identities
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Driving Identities

At the Intersection of Popular Music and Automotive Culture

Ken McLeod

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Driving Identities

At the Intersection of Popular Music and Automotive Culture

Ken McLeod

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About This Book

Driving Identities examines long-standing connections between popular music and the automotive industry and how this relationship has helped to construct and reflect various socio-cultural identities. It also challenges common assumptions regarding the divergences between industry and art, and reveals how music and sound are used to suture the putative divide between human and non-human.

This book is a ground-breaking inquiry into the relationship between popular music and automobiles, and into the mutual aesthetic and stylistic influences that have historically left their mark on both industries. Shaped by new historicism and cultural criticism, and by methodologies adapted from gender, LGBTQ+, and African-American studies, it makes an important contribution to understanding the complex and interconnected nature of identity and cultural formation. In its interdisciplinary approach, melding aspects of ethnomusicology, sociology, sound studies, and business studies, it pushes musicological scholarship into a new consideration and awareness of the complexity of identity construction and of influences that inform our musical culture.

The volume also provides analyses of the confluences and coactions of popular music and automotive products to highlight the mutual influences on their respective aesthetic and technical evolutions.

Driving Identities is aimed at both academics and enthusiasts of automotive culture, popular music, and cultural studies in general. It is accompanied by an extensive online database appendix of car-themed pop recordings and sheet music, searchable by year, artist, and title.

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1 “Come away with me, Lucille”

A brief history of popular song and automobiles

As several studies have recognized, the centrality of automobility has exerted itself across the globe (Brodsky, 2015; Gartman, 2004; Sheller, 2004; Wollen, 2002a). It is estimated that in 2014 the number of cars in use throughout the world exceeded 1.2 billion, a 20 per cent increase since 2010 (Voelcker, 2014). In 2013, the United States alone had over 254 million registered vehicles (Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2013). Furthermore, some scholars predict that expanding markets in developing countries will result in as many as two billion cars in operation by 2030 (Lutz & Fernandez, 2010).
Until the 1920s, the expense of automobile ownership meant it was mostly reserved for the wealthy. It was a vehicle for conspicuous consumption that projected and identified one’s social class and financial means. The advent of mass-production techniques developed by Henry Ford allowed his eponymous car company, along with competitors Chrysler and General Motors (GM), to produce roughly 72 per cent of the world’s automobiles by the mid-1920s (Gartman, 2004). This signalled an incursion of the car into the daily lives of less affluent consumers such that it now holds a central identifying status across all social classes (Inglis, 2004).
Since its inception, the car has made a particularly significant impact on Western popular culture. Automobiles have been incorporated into almost all mediums of entertainment—magazines, books, newsprint, radio, television, and movies. Typically, the themes of such works have centred on the freedom the automobile affords. Books and movies have focused on individuals, typically young men, who succeed in liberating themselves from a restrictive middle-class life in order to travel and seek adventure in the exotic. The common idea of the car as liberating has always rested on an odd contradiction—a desire to escape from those conditions that allow one to possess a car in the first place. Nonetheless, car ownership came to be associated with independence, freedom, and increased social status. Nowhere, however, has the liberating effect of the car been more celebrated than in the world of popular music. Indeed, the two industries have been mutually interconnected almost from the moment of their respective formations. For well over one hundred years, the subject of automobiles and automotive culture has been employed in almost every genre of popular music. A complete study of lyrical and sonic references is beyond the scope of this chapter. Instead, the aim will be to provide a topical, and roughly chronologic, overview of the evolution of popular music relating to cars, from Tin Pan Alley parlour songs through to contemporary popular music. In so doing, it will outline the historical prevalence and current extent of the interconnections between popular music and automobiles, and illuminate a new understanding of their mutually influential aesthetic. Particular attention will be paid to the sonic influence of automobile culture on popular music—how the sounds of engines, horns, and car customization have impacted popular music aurally—and how the relationship between cars and popular music has evolved in constructing and reflecting various identities.

Early automotive songs

In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler invented in Germany what is often recognized as the prototype of the modern internal combustion gas engine. North America’s first gasoline-powered commercial car manufacturers were Charles and Frank Duryea, whose Duryea Motor Wagon Company produced 13 different models by 1896 (Bellis, 2016). And within a decade of the appearance of automobiles on America’s roads, Tin Pan Alley was creating car-related hits with a speed and regularity that compared favourably to the auto industry’s mass-production pace. Between 1905 and 1907, more than 120 songs were written with the automobile as subject (Widmer, 1990, p. 82). The automotive themes of these songs reflected the general culture of the automobile industry: sexual adventure, upward mobility, liberation from social control, and masculine power. Such themes reflected not only the ideals overtly promoted by the auto industry but also, in part, those generated by songwriters as they interpreted the car’s significance.
At the time, sheet music sales dominated the commercial music industry. Much of the early music about the automobile, such as “Motor Car” (1903) and Hamilton J. Hawley’s “The Auto Race” (1904), consisted of instrumental works for piano or band that were designed to imitate the unique mechanical sounds of the new and exciting invention. Many of these sheet music works translated well into the relatively new medium of recording, partly because of their onomatopoeic content. For example, “The Auto Race,” as performed by the Edison Concert Band and recorded in 1905, features an early recording of a car backfiring as it starts up, followed by several hoots from a hand-pump car horn that are imitated by the winds and interjected at various moments. Such imitative musical features are suggestive that the car was not simply a machine understood only in functional terms, but that it was also a work of art in itself that inspired other artists. As a spoken word preamble on the recording explains, the idea of the “race” pits different instruments against each other in a rollicking perpetuum mobile of racing sixteenth notes as different instruments take up the main melody and thus “overtake” others.
Indeed, composers of many instrumental genres, including dance music, ragtime, and marches, wrote music celebrating, and often imitating, the frequently erratic motorized sounds of the new automobile. Typically evoking a seemingly unnatural mechanical intrusion on the sonic lives of listeners, the tempos alternated between fast and slow, with repetitive drone-like melodies and noise effects evoking the various spluttering and monotonous sounds of an engine. March music relating to the car was particularly prevalent in works such as George Rosy’s “The Motor March” (1906), Joseph Howard’s “The Peerless March” (dedicated to the Peerless Motor Company, 1917), Harry Zickel’s “The Ford March” (1908), Harry Sawyer’s “The Taxi Cab March” (1910), J. W. Ladd’s “The Automobile March” (1900), George W. Moraine’s “The Auto King March” (1911), and Richard Goosman’s “Auto Patrol March” (1908). Dances, mostly two-steps, included Grace Walls Linn’s “The Automobile Spin” (1899), Frank P. Banta’s “Kareless Koon” (1899), E. H. Pendleton’s “The Ebony Flyer” (1903), and E. Hardy’s “The Auto Glide” (1915).


As cars became increasingly common in American life, so too did music written about them. In 1904, some 29 songs were published about automobiles, 40 in 1905, and 53 in 1908 (Heitmann, 2009). Henry Ford, inventor of the popular Model T, alone was mentioned in over 60 songs composed between 1908 and 1940. Much as with record company Motown’s symbiotic association with the automotive industry later in the century, songs that employed car brand names served to increase the marketing and sales of both products. Car companies were quick to realize and seize the advertising potential of sheet music. Many began to give out sheet music to the public, hoping to bring in potential customers (although those who already owned a particular make of car celebrated in song may also have been interested). A song proclaiming the virtues of a product might have been practised and played multiple times in people’s homes, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of times over across the country if the tune were memorable or popular enough. Of course, the composer of the song also enjoyed spin-off benefits of this success, although it is hard to gauge the overall commercial influence of such practices, be it their influence on car sales or on the careers and incomes of sheet music composers.1
The commercial associations between the music and auto industries began as early as 1899, with the publication of L. Marda’s heavily syncopated “The Studebaker Grand March.” Aside from the lyrical promotion of the product in the song, the artwork that frequently appeared on the sheet music covers was a prime means of bringing advertising messages into the potential consumer’s home. The front cover of “The Studebaker Grand March,” for example, celebrated 50 years of the Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company, with artwork depicting its factory as it originally looked in 1849 and again in 1899. The back cover extolled the capacity of the factory, proclaiming it the “Largest in the World, covering 98 acres,” with “Vehicles of Every Description” and an “Annual capacity [of] 75,000 Vehicles.” While the melody and lyrics of advertising sheet music songs provided a sonic and aural testimony to the quality and features of the car, the imagery, as manifest in the “Studebaker March” and actual representations of Henry Ford (as discussed below), offered a less ephemeral reminder of the manufacturer.
Figure 1.1 Front Cover of L. Marda, “The Studebaker Grand March” (1899). Image Supplied by Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University
Figure 1.2 Back Cover of L. Marda, “The Studebaker Grand March” (1899). Image supplied by Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University
C. R. Foster and Byron Gay’s “The Little Ford Rambled Right Along” (1914) exemplifies the type of advertisement that a car song could provide. The song is a comedic ode to the reliability of a Ford Model T (depicted on the cover of the sheet music) and testifies to the amount of driving abuse it could withstand yet still “ramble along”:
You can smash the top and smash up the seat,
You can twist it out of shape till both ends meet;
Smash the body and rip out a gear,
Smash up the front and smash up the rear,
Smash up the fender and rip off the tires,
Smash up the lamps and cut out the wires,
Throw in the clutch and then forget the juice,
And the little old Ford will go to beat the deuce.
The song thus portrays the merits of the Ford, its reliability and practicality, in comparison to a “big limousine”: as “the gas burned out in the big machine / The little old Ford don’t need gasoline.” As such, it is an ode to class identity, contrasting the down-home reliability of the middle or working class, who would have been the market for the Model T, to the relative unreliability of the upper classes in their limousines. The chorus of “And the little old Ford it rambled right-along” is set to an undulating sixteenth-note melody underlain by a syncopated left-hand piano part that evokes both the rumbling sound of the engine and the notion of rambling movement. In Billy Murray’s hit version of the song, recorded in 1915, the rumble and syncopations are supplemented by actual car-horn honking.
Ford commissioned many other songs as advertising odes to the Model T and later Model A. Jack Frost’s witty wordplay in “You Can’t Afford to Marry If You Can’t Afford a Ford” (1915) emphasized the low price of the Model T. Playing off the common practice of anthropomorphizing cars in song, Larry Shay’s “When Lizzie Changed Her Name to Baby Lincoln” (1927) was commissioned by Ford to advertise the name change of the Model T, whose popular nickname was Lizzie. The same anthropomorphizing occurred in Walter O’Keefe’s “Henry’s Made a Lady Out of Lizzie” (1928), which announced the new Model A: “She once had rattles in her wheel, But now she’s full of ‘sex appeal’ / She’s like all the other vamps, Pretty shape and lovely lamps.” Several other songs were simply paeans to Henry Ford himself that also boasted the Model T’s reliability. Examples of these include “My Henry Ford” by Joe Austin and Ralph Loveland (1915), “Mr. Ford You’ve Got the Right Idea” by Ray Sherwood and J. Fred Coots (1916), and “That Wonderful Ford” by Geneva Cranston (1915). Many of these songs—again, commissioned by the company—featured a picture of a young Henry Ford on the front cover, connecting the songs and the cars to the cult of personality he embodied.
However, not all songs relating to Henry Ford were positive. In 1922, for example, Billy Rose and Ballard MacDonald penned the cynical “Since Henry Ford Apologized to Me,” a satirical response to Ford’s public apology to the Jewish people. Ford had extended the apology to ward off a lawsuit following a series of overtly anti-Semitic remarks he had published in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent (Lewis, 1976, pp. 144–145). The song casts a doubtful eye over the sincerity of Ford’s admission of guilt:
I was sad and I was blue but now I’m just as good as you
Since Henry Ford apologized to me
That’s why you threw away your little Chevrolet
And bought yourself a Ford cou-pay.
I told the superintendent that the Dearborn Independent doesn’t have to hang up where it used to be
You’re happy now because he settled half the case
I’m sorry I cut off my nose to spite mayn [sic] race
Are you glad he changed his point of view?
Yes, I like even Edsel too
Since Henry Ford apologized to me.
Meant to be sung as a duet in a thick Yiddish accent, it became a minor hit, mostly after it was performed and recorded by the Happiness Boys in 1927.2 The song remains a rare instance of public criticism of Ford’s anti-Semitic views.

Cars and brokenness!

As demonstrated in the lyrics to “The Little Ford Rambled Along” and other Ford-related songs that emphasized the Model T’s reliability, the automotive experience at the turn of the century was not an unalloyed love affair. Indeed, the automobile had many detractors and was derided in song as often as it was celebrated. For example, Dave Reed Jr’s “Git a Horse” (1902) comically outlines the low regard in which many people held the increasing incursion of the automobile:
Automobile coming down the street,
Git a horse, git a horse;
You will hear this all along the beat,
Git a horse, git a horse.
When you’re ju...

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