Two American Stories

This post seemed like a good idea when I thought of it, but I have been unable to get it the way I imagined it. You’ll have to tell me what you think of its premise.

Although a lot of big radio hits today are catchy as hell, they aren’t really about anything. Katy Perry is a champion and you’re gonna hear her roar, although the reason why is neither particularly clear nor especially interesting. People are going down to the club or pursuing dreams or learning lessons, but in a solipsistic way that leaves those of us on the outside of their experiences mostly to nod along with the beat without feeling anything one way or the other. Not so in the 1970s. Thirty-eight years ago this month, two American stories were in the Top 40 together, ones with which lots of listeners could identify.

C. W. McCall’s “Convoy” is about a cross-country trucker caravan orchestrated via CB radio. C. W. McCall was the alter ego of a Midwestern advertising executive named Bill Fries; he wrote the words while a partner, Chip Davis (later famed as the impresario of Mannheim Steamroller), wrote the music. “Convoy” is sufficiently well-written to keep you listening even after you know how it turns out, and Fries-as-McCall is a charming storyteller.

Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” is about boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who, along with another man, was convicted of a 1966 triple murder in New Jersey. Although they were granted a new trial amid accusations of perjury and racism, they were convicted a second time in 1975. When Dylan released “Hurricane” late that same year, Carter had yet to be re-sentenced; while the record rode the charts he got life, although the conviction would be overturned, and he was freed in 1985. “Hurricane” is not so much a story as a polemic, one Dylan was forced to tone down at the insistence of his record label’s lawyers, who feared libel suits from those Dylan called out by name. It’s occasionally overwrought and ham-fisted as it claims Carter’s innocence (it’s doubtful that the cops seeking to pin the murder on Carter told a witness “don’t forget that you are white”), but Dylan’s anger is palpable, and the song’s rambling structure makes it feel like a collection of newspaper clippings collected by a passionate advocate.

Two American stories. “Convoy,” which ends with a triumphant “let them truckers roll 10-4″, describes a victory over The Man for little guys everywhere. Nobody’s going to tell them where they can go or how they have to get there. And while “Convoy” was at #1, millions of CB-using Americans in the real world were telling their government the same thing. Since the citizens’ band was marked out in the 1940s, the FCC had required CB users to be licensed, but in January 1976, with the CB craze at peak insanity, the field office in charge of issuing the licenses was buried by a million applications. At that point, if you wanted a CB, you simply went out and bought one, and went on the air without the legal sanction to do so. The license requirement outlived the CB craze, but it was a casualty of Reagan-era deregulation, finally dropped in 1983.

Two American stories. “Hurricane” is also about a little guy, in Dylan’s telling:  “[boxing is] my work, he’d say / And I do it for pay / And when it’s all over I’d just as soon go on my way.” Its story is one of profound anger at the everyday racism faced by black Americans (“the cops pulled him over to the side of the road / Just like the time before and the time before that”) and the more profound injustices that stem from it. That’s a more intractable problem than the one in which white Americans are persecuted by having to fill out a form, but by its very nature it’s one that white America can easily ignore.

Although Rubin Carter eventually won his freedom, the injustice at the heart of his story goes on. The little guys “Convoy” celebrates won a bigger victory.  It seems to me that “Convoy” (and its spiritual twin, the 1977 movie Smokey and the Bandit) represent significant milestones on the way to the Reagan 80s and the conservative era that followed, right down to the modern Tea Party. What’s their deal, after all, but glorifying ordinary (white) Americans who outfox those who are supposed to be smarter and more powerful than they are, and/or anyone who tries to tell them what to do?

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5 responses

  1. The wife and I were talking about this the other day. Thousands of story songs: Bill Don’t Be A Hero, The Night Chicago Died, Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, White Knight (another CB hit), The Streak, Spiders and Snakes, Wildwood Weed (hmm any stafford, maybe), Brother Louie, Cats in the Cradle, Wildfire, Chevy Van…

  2. I love “Hurricane,” but it’s a shame that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Carter was guilty, even if the racial conditions of Paterson, New Jersey were to some extent a mitigating circumstance for what appears to have been a racially motivated revenge killing.

  3. Yeah, where *is* that song about sticking it to The Man via Instagram?

    I’d say the CB craze was more of a fad than a harbinger of emerging conservatism. Most of the novice CB masses were about as white bread as C.W.’s Old Home client’s product. The ones who really wanted their voices heard ran their E.F. Johnsons through non-Kosher linear amplifiers, but that, in itself, wasn’t a sign that they were doing so merely to thumb their collective microphones at the FCC and big government. Take the older assistant caretaker couple two floors above my apartment: their nighttime coverage bettered what I was getting over the fully-licensed airwaves I was modulating with amplitude, and keeping abreast of their everyday social activities was never a problem whenever I attempted to play records on my home stereo. But even they weren’t breaking the big CB no-no. A true rebel would’ve connected a mixing board to the CB’s input jack, broken out the jingles and gone all Casey, all the time.

    Gigantic over-the-air party line that CB radio was, I don’t think Big Brother was listening in on every conversation. Were it only so in the Twittersphere. There’s the story begging for a #1-trending song.

  4. I, too, sense a connection between many of those (not nearly all) who took up the CB craze and the current working class right wing, with a stop-off at “Urban Cowboy” and “Boot-Scootin’ Boogie” along the way. And something related nags at me that makes me hear snippets of two Bruce Springsteen songs: I think we see in that working class right wing the anger of the newly displaced (“Foreman says these jobs are goin’, boys, and they ain’t comin’ back . . .”), and that anger is misdirected in many ways at those who have been long displaced (“It ain’t no secret . . . You can get killed just for living in your American skin . . .”). What to draw from that? I dunno, but I think you and I sense the same thing.

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