Songs Along the Way

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The Highlands Highway – Papua New Guinea

Certain songs remind us of the intense moments of our lives – past loves, especially. But what about the songs that conjure the sensations and emotions of past journeys? Whenever I hear them, I close my eyes and allow myself to be transported on the melody, along the serpentine road of remembrance.

Thailand – April 1992
My last night in Bangkok. A tiny jazz bar called Brown Sugar. Everything obscured by smoke. Blue smoke in the air, purple smoke in my brain. Magic smoke. The tendrils were losing their grip on the rising despair. Please don’t make me go “home”. One of my sister’s roommates brought me to the club. I can’t remember why Pebby didn’t come, but it doesn’t matter. I sat with Steve in that darkened room, pouring alcohol over the smoke. Watching it thicken. I think we probably didn’t say much, because I was unable to. He suddenly got up, walked over to the band, and requested “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. He leaned over and squeezed my shoulders when they played it. The warmth seeped deep inside, where it still remains.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines – October 1992
Whenever I doubt the magic, that certain paths are just meant for us, I put on “Cool Change” and relive the glorious days of sailing the jewel-colored Caribbean. The opportunity had come out of nowhere. A phone call from a stranger. A risk taken on pure intuition. I was plucked out of the murk and thrust into daylight. The Dutch Captain and his wife had one CD: Little River Band Greatest Hits. It could have become annoying, but it didn’t. It was music to sail away with. I sat at the very front of the boat, my legs over the side, as we drifted. Soft warm waves reached up to tickle my feet. I lifted my face to the sun, oblivious to the fact that, in just a couple of days, when we reached Mustique, I would get news that my father had died. In less than two weeks, I’d be in the hospital. Swallowed up by the void.

Papua New Guinea – September 1995
That thick red line on the map – the Highlands Highway – turned out to be a washed-out road through the jungle and it was far too late to turn back. And neither Maya or I wanted to. Despite the threat of bandits, known as raskolls. I remember the feel of that steering wheel, trying to tear itself out of my grip. Phantom mist obscuring the way. Portishead’s Dummy album filled our heavy silence, and drowned out the jarring sound of wheels grinding along uneven ground. Leading us into our own personal heart of darkness.

When we tired of Portishead, we switched to Mad Season’s Above album. Beth Gibbons’ eerie melancholy was replaced by Layne Staley’s raw anguish. That voice. It tore right through my soul, especially on “Wake Up”.  The words snaked through my mind: Wake up, wake up, wake up.* Before it’s too late.

A few days later, we dropped the Land Rover off at the airport in Madang. Without a scratch. The rental agent shook his head and told us that we were the first people he knew of who had driven that highway with no problem.

The most dangerous part of the voyage was behind, but the music didn’t stop. I have already written about “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash in an earlier post.

Taiwan – November 1995/North Korea – April 2016
Some songs are so enduring that they make encores in our lives. Such is the case with “Wonderwall” by Oasis. First time I heard it, I was once again visiting my sister, this time in Taiwan. I flew up from Guam, just before Thanksgiving. It was her boyfriend, I think, who played the song. Words of longing and mystery. We all fell silent when it came on. Daydreaming of that one we never could bring ourselves to face.

I started writing this post last night, and just this morning I received news that one of my sister’s Taiwan roommates passed away last weekend. He was such a character and the trip to Taiwan will always be more memorable because of his presence. RIP, Tim.

More than twenty years later, in the karaoke room of the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, our group of travelers sang our hearts out to the tinny music emanating from the speakers. It was the last night of the tour and we were high on soju and discovery. None of us, no matter which country we came from, had to read the words on the screens. The Korean guides sat back and watched. Sunbeam smiles. Had they ever heard the original version?

North Korea – April 2016
Every evening, as we were driven back to the hotel, our tour bus turned into a lounge on wheels. People were nominated to come up and sing a song, preferably from his or her country. Our Korean guide, Miss Yu, got it started with “Arirang”. As the bus carried us through the dark streets of Pyongyang, her words were like a soft lullaby. I captured it on video:

Mr. Pak was the first to be nominated. His parents were diplomats, so he had lived overseas for much of his childhood. Fiercely patriotic, he chose a song – “Our Country” – that would stick in our heads for the entire trip. Someone would hum it, and we’d groan and roll our eyes. So, without further ado, here’s the lovely and talented Mr. Pak:

Then it was the travelers’ turn to be nominated. I cringed and slid down in the seat. The Polish guys bribed us with chocolate, so we wouldn’t nominate them. Latvia, Austria, Canada, Australia, and Germany all took their turns. When the British couple stood up and began to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the whole bus joined in. “You guys lucked out,” I told them afterwards. I started to sweat. If called upon, I would insist on doing an interpretive dance instead. But I needn’t have worried. They didn’t want to hear from the Americans anyway.

Easter Island/Chile – October 2016
But how many corners do I have to turn.
How many times do I have to learn
All the love I have is in my mind
**

It’s funny how some songs disappear, and then reappear at the times we need to hear them. Just before I left for my incredible journey to Easter Island, I rediscovered “Lucky Man” by The Verve. I had loved the song when it came out in the 90’s, but it took on a much deeper significance. It is a song of gentle wonder at this strange new sensation called joy. The kind of happiness that can only be felt by someone who has wandered alone in the wilderness and has finally found the way home. Darkness dispelled. Nothing but sunshine and blue sky above. I added the song to the iPod and listened to it as I drove around that magical island, dodging wild horses. Reclaiming lost treasure.

Strange synchronicities occurred. After my flight from the Atacama Desert back to Santiago, I was the first to enter the baggage area. The room was empty and silent. Just as I walked in, this song came on. Then, as I wandered around Santiago, I saw posters for Richard Ashcroft’s upcoming concert. He was the lead singer of The Verve, and the person who wrote the song. His concert was on the night of my departure. My ticket didn’t allow any changes, or I would have stayed an extra day.

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Driving towards Rano Raraku – Easter Island

So, I would really love to know: which songs evoke your travels or a different place than where you are now? Please share in the comments.

*lyrics from Mad Season “Wake Up”
**lyrics from The Verve “Lucky Man”

63 thoughts on “Songs Along the Way

  1. I remember tearing out the page with the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan out of a school book as a child, because I really couldn’t let it go, and I never did anything bad so it must have made a big impression on me 🙂

  2. I can’t remember any songs associated to travels right now – there must be some, I’m certain… I’ll think about.
    The only one that comes to my mind is a very recent one: the mix of the call to prayer in Bandarawela (Sri Lanka) with “Girls just want to have fun” by Cindy Lauper. So strange….

  3. Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ puts me on a train every time I hear it. It was written on a train and that influence shines through. Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ takes me to Burma for the 1985 Water Festival. Dave Matthew’s ‘Satellite’ lands me in Belgium. But the strongest is Toto’s ‘Africa’. It can bring me to tears and lets me swirl admist the incredible memories of my years spent on that amazing continent. Plenty more songs touch me, but these are the biggies.

    • I’ve never heard of that show, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s unknown. I’m pretty ignorant about shows. I look forward to reading your post, Robin.

  4. I loved this post. As you get older, so many songs are added to my memories. I hope I never forget the feeling when I hear them.

    • When I hear “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin, I remember that camping trip we went on in Northern Michigan (was it Charlevoix?) way back when I was living at the cottage just after high school. Driving down the road with it cranked way up. You are the coolest mom. 💗

  5. Music serves as the soundtrack of our life. For you, it also recalls places, travels, memories…a wonderful post that reflects what I’m sure is just a small portion of that.
    Two songs jumped out for my own experience. John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” for the adventures in the mountains around Salt Lake City. And my all time favorite, from many solo trips to the Chesapeake Bay, Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”…wasting time was a favorite activity!
    Thanks, Julie.

    • Hi Van – Thanks so much for sharing your travel soundtrack. Local favorites always seems to enter our heads when we visit a place. Like Bob Seger will always be the voice of Michigan for me.

  6. My whole life, including my travels of course, has musical accompaniment that has etched a permanent groove in my brain. It is instantaneous; when certain songs come on, I am immediately transported. Great blogging minds think alike, too – I wrote a post like this (only without clips since I’m too cheap to pay for the expanded WordPress – haha) a while ago and had so much fun with it. Yours is great; I love the clips and the memories they evoke for you.

  7. What a wonderful post, dear Julie, thank you very much for your stories, songs and the absolute marvellous last picture. Yes, I also have, especially, one song in mind “Only you” by Elvis Presley and not by the Platters. All the best Martina

  8. My father passed in 2011 – one of his favorite songs was Gene Autry’s “I’ve got spurs that jungle jangle jingle as I go riding merrily along…” In 2012, I was in Calgary – January, the winter was harsh that year. It was early morning, totally dark when I found myself sitting in Starbucks. Across from my table was an empty chair. I said aloud – “I wish you were here with me dad.” At that very moment, the Gene Autry song came through loud and clear. We have unmistakable moments that are tied with music. I loved this post – thank you.

  9. Thanks for taking us on this journey of remembrance. Songs have a habit of becoming intertwined with our memories. Thanks for the videos about the singing on the Korean tour bus – I will never take that tour just to avoid being forced to sing in public. Just as I never go on group functions to karaoke.

    Whilst in Cambodia, “To the door of the sun” sprang into my head whilst I was watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat and it stuck so hard, I turned it into a post.

    • I don’t think they’d really force anyone who didn’t want to sing. All of the people who sang, wanted to sing. Some could barely restrain themselves. There were some total hams in the group.

      Thanks for sharing your Angkor song here. I remember that stunning post.

  10. Julie, what a great idea for a post!
    Time by the Chambers Brothers reminds me of summers in college when I worked in Yosemite National Park.
    Nights in White Satin by The Moody Blues harken the 60s & evenings at The Fillmore Auditorium in SF.
    Beethoven’s Piano Bagatelles-A lonely time made hopeful-70s.
    Sunshine Superman by Donavan became my anthem during the five years I lived in Yosemite.
    Nyc by Interpol timed with personal tragedy in the early 2000s.
    These days I prefer relaxing play lists ala Deva Premal.

    • Thanks for participating, because I’m really curious, especially about regular readers. Yosemite sounds like it was particularly special for you.

  11. My life hasn’t been half so interesting as yours, Julie, and probably a lot less traumatic. I always loved the Bill Withers song and I’ve taken time to come back and listen to the others. Music is so personal, isn’t it? I don’t recall any particular traveling moments by music but I suspect the fault is a failing memory. Denver’s Country Roads always resonates with me but I was never anywhere near West Virginia. Nor Galveston, and that song was always heartbreak to me when I was a lot younger. Thanks for sharing, and the kindness of your visit. 🙂 🙂

    • I appreciate that you took the time to search your memory,Jo. One of the main reasons why I started this blog is that I’m starting to forget things about my travels. Making an effort to remember details such as songs and travels keeps the brain active, and if I happen to forget it again later on, I can rediscover it here. You’ve got an excellent memory. All of the little details about your walks…I am always impressed.

  12. Love this post!!! Thanks for the video accompaniments to bring the music to life.

    It IS amazing how music can instantly take you back….

    Yellow Brick Road ~ Elton John
    Daniel ~ Elton John
    Money money ~ Pink Floyd
    Abbey road beatles album. My first ever! Ok that dates me…:)
    Kodachrome ~ Pail Simon

    All take me right back to very specific moments in time high school and shortly after. The music brings with it the friends of that time period, like nothing else can.

    My very first live concert ~ Bob Dylan in Miami…Everybody must get high

    Your singing on the bus video Korea reminded me of some poignant music in Viet Nam that was very similar.

    Peta

  13. Yay, for music! Songs can definitely evoke a time/place/emotion. For over a decade I have actually been creating playlists for each year, throughout the year. Essentially, whenever I get really into a song I add it to the list, so by the end of the year I have a soundtrack that can bring me back through the year. It’s always interesting to go back and listen to old ones.

    When I was in Siberia a few years ago, music definitely played a role as we did a lot of singing around the campfire together. This is one of the songs we came back to a lot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4_LCUhO7Yw I also have fond memories of singing The Beatles’ Across the Universe. I was even taught some Russian folk songs as we worked on the trail, you can see me singing back-up here, heh. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmZkZ7f9oDE

    I have strong memories associated with Wonderwall, too but in a totally different context: spinning crazily around with a friend of mine at another friend’s wedding and having a strong best old friends moment.

    • Thanks for the links. That shirtless drummer….woohoo so hot. 😱That’s so cool you speak Russian and I envy your trip to Siberia. The Lake Baikal region is the part of Russia I’d most like to visit. Playlists for every year is a fabulous way to reminisce.

  14. For you life has been traveling, for others maybe just a little bit, and memories sometimes are hard to remember,, I spent most of 1974 traveling through Central, and South America, now my memories are vague, but one thing I remember watching over, and over Jesus Christ Super Star, and Some of Bruce Lee movies, who seem to be following us everywhere on our way South!
    But of course there’s plenty of Music that evoke a period from our lives, or even the lack of it, on the late seventies worked in Baja in the middle of nowhere, you couldn’t even listen to the radio, and for that purpose I bought a shortwave radio, that for lack of a proper antenna wasn’t able to catch much but remember on the early hours of the morning listening from China all the way across the pacific of all things the International song every day at the same hour!
    A friend of mine would play his records over, and over from what I remember Jethro Tull, Queen, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Denver, and some others that may not be familiar to English speaking people.
    Well every period from our lives evoke the music of the day, thank you for remind us of that. 🙂

    • What an interesting experience to have worked in remote Baja so many years ago. Some periods of our lives are filled with silence, and that can be just as rich as music. Maybe even more so. Thank you for sharing your memories.

  15. Interesting how different generations “feed” on different songs. A song to a place? Hard to tell. I’ve traveled too much. (t)ravel? (un)ravel? 🙂
    The Doors Soft Parade = Ethiopia? Where I finished High school. 😉
    Agustin Lara’s wonderful songs = Mexico. If I remember more, I will let you know.
    Just read “Plateaued”. I need to read your posts faster before you close comments. 😉
    Made me wonder: what were (are) you (still) looking for? And found? Peace? 😉
    (I also wonder about the sense of the word “peace” as I write this with one hand, my 10 months-old grandson on my lap, trying to reach the keyboard) 😉
    Be good, Julie. A bientôt.
    B.

      • Don’t mention it. I guess you are right. Though I’ve started early, I think you have covered more ground than I have. :)And most music is nice to listen to if you open your ears (Even French Rock!) 😉 A +

  16. Portishead through the jungle? Julie, that is a fabulous idea, I’m surely going to nick it in the future if you don’t mind. I really loved your post and it made me wonder what I’d have sung had I been on the bus with you and I was asked to sing something Italian. Considering I was kicked out of the church choir at 9 for being to inept at singing it’d have been bad, bad, bad.

    Anyhow, my songs that bring me to places relate mostly to particular periods of my life. Like you, I remember “Lucky man” from the Verve for its video came out when I was 11, and I caught a glimpse of the video on MTV, then nothing for about 10 years. I remembered the strings, and it was great to hear it again afterwards. I remember singing to myself the choir when I was in middle school.

    “Paralyze Ya” by Left Lane Cruiser. It reminds me of summer ’14. When my mother’s cancer entered into terminal phase, I started flying to Italy three times a month. I’d be hitting Milan Malpensa, power walk to Avis, pick up my car and then drive on the motorway. “Paralyze Ya” was always, inevitably, the last song to be played on my iPad as I drove into my house’s driveway and turned off the engine, seeing her room’s with the light still on. After she died I took the song out of the iPad.

    “Tribulations” by the LCD Soundsystem. It’s the University days! Living with my mates in Turin, in a great house, sampling the freedom that comes with being 20, living in a place where drinks are cheap and clubs are good. I used to listen to it whilst jogging and I still haven’t been to a gig that could rival LCD Soundsystem opening for Daft Punk. For free.

    “Cumbia del Monte” by Pedro Laza y Sus Pelayeros. Yes, it’s Colombian. But it reminds me of a “colectivo” I took in Peru that was blasting cumbias all the way. Cliche’, but so damn nice.

    Finally, and rather stupidly, “Boys” by Sabrina Salerno. For reasons that escape me, half of the Soviet world has somewhat of a crush for the stupidest, most idiotic Eighties music that came out of Italy. Pupo, I Ricchi e I Poveri, Adriano Pappalardo, I even had a Vietnamese border guard singing to me Toto Cotugno and asking me to join in, in front of the whole Japan Airlines flight. However, a good friend and I went to Almaty last November. It’s snowing snowmen, it’s 5 AM and it’s minus a lot. We catch an Uber, a Dacia Logan with a toasty warmth. The Kazakh driver gets into gear and the second song, you guessed it, is Sabrina Salerno. My friend and I watch each other and almost fall out of the car at the reach of Italy’s soft power.

    Ok that’s enough ramblings…

    • I love your vibrant ramblings, Fabrizio. The bizarre musical obsessions of former Soviet states is always entertaining. Having lived for almost ten years now in Central/Eastern Europe, I totally know what you mean. I look forward to your account of your trip through the jungle accompanied by Portishead. The incongruous combination is splendid, trust me. I’m sure you would rock that tour bus. Another account I look forward to reading about one day. 😁

  17. An always classic on my travel playlist is “Life Is A Highway” by Tom Cochrane. While traveling around Russia on trains I had “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago playing.

  18. It is so true that songs and melodies might be related to certain moments, people and places!. I feel so too. When I was in Brazil (Rio de Janeiro) this was “THE” song: Cláudia Leitte – Pensando Em Você (Ao Vivo Em Copacabana) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSWXN6dPZtQ . I am listening to the second song you have attached above and loving it! 😀 happy new season, dear Julie … See you on Instagram 😉 Love & best wishes.

  19. Hi Julie, cool playlist you have…i’m thinking about my songs related to my travels, but the first one I remember right now is Hotel California … for me just perfect for roadtrips.

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