(There’s no other list like this!)
When I travel, whether near or far, I explore the local music scene. When I’m home, I scour online sites to find music from around the world in a panoply of genres. As a result, I have hundreds of playlists from over the years from which I have picked 25 songs from over the last century that represent the spirit and excitement of travel. Some are well known around the world and others have been heard only by a relatively small audience. Some explicitly sing about travel and others are metaphors for leaving home or yearning to return to a special place. Sometimes the trip is over space and time, other times it’s an emotional journey. Without further ado, here they are, from recent to oldest.
1. Havana – Camila Cabello (with Young Thug) – 2018 – Latin Rhythm Pop
While this song is about falling in love with a guy from East Atlanta, Cabello laments that she had to leave Havana and can’t return. inThis song reminds me of my trip to Cuba with my family in 2016, where we got to see the vibrant culture and amazing music scene.
2. Wayfaring Traveler – Keyon Harrold – 2017 – Jazz
Trumpeter Keyon Harrold is a thoughtful and talented trumpeter and composer, that I was fortunate to see in Rough Trade in Brooklyn during the 2020 NYC Winter Jazzfest. This song is not the traditional folk and gospel song performed by many, including Johnny Cash. Keyon’s song is slightly experiential with distorted male and female voices along a hummable trumpet motif over a steady drumbeat. The song is about a couple’s journey to intimacy.
3. Take Flight – Maya Jane Coles – 2017 – Down-Tempo Electronic
This song is about a “secret place we can hide until midnight”. It’s a short journey, but an important one. Maya was born in London of British and Japanese descent and is based in the U.K. Trip-Hop aficionados would love this.
4. Fly Away With Me – Tom Walker – 2016 – Singer/Songwriter
This Scottish singer-songwriter portrays a down-and-out artist, who despite his struggles, dreams about literally flying away to have a better life.
5. Dtw to Dia (The Travels of Mr. B) – GRiZ – 2013 – Funk Dubstep
This is mostly a funky instrumental from GRiZ, an American DJ, songwriter and saxophonist from Southern Michigan. It qualifies as travel as the title uses the codes of the Detroit and Denver airports.
6. Keep the Car Running – Arcade Fire – 2007 – Alternative
This song by the popular and talented Canadian group is open to many interpretations. For me, “keep the car running” refers to being able to leave at a moment’s notice. I can relate to this, as I am always ready to hit the road when there’s a good opportunity.
7. Sleepwalking Through The Mekong – Dengue Fever – 2005 – Cambodian Psychedelic Rock
Dengue Fever is one of my favorite groups and I’ve seen them three times in concert. The band cranks out psychedelic riffs with Cambodian lyrics and melodies from the 60s and 70s. The result is a mesmerizing soundscape. “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong” is also the name of the documentary about the band’s journey to Cambodia, led by singer Chhom Nimol, who was born there. Their music was used for the Off-Broadway play “A Cambodia Rock Band” which explores the unimaginable and horrifying difficulties of living through the Khmer Rouge era.
8. Bamako Street Taxi – Amadou and Mariam – 2004 – West African Pop
There is no better example of two people who resonate with musicality in everything they do. I saw this blind, married couple perform in a small room on the top of a hotel in the East Village and it was one of my best concerts ever. This song is in French and about a taxi hustling for passengers. You can feel the helter-skelter atmosphere in the capital of Mali.
9. Yun Hi Chala Chal – A.R. Rahman – 2004 – Hindi Soundtrack
This song is from the Hindi-language movie “Swades”, which is about an Indian-born tech worker in the U.S. who returns to India on a nostalgic vacation. He falls in love with a woman who he wants to take back to the States, but because of cultural and other reasons, is unable to. The song celebrates roaming the world and appreciating its beauty. The composer is A.R. Rahman (of “Millionaire Slumdog” fame) who combines classical Indian melodies and instruments with western harmonics.
10. Road Trippin’ – Red Hot Chili Peppers – 1999 – Acoustic Rock
Red Hot Chili Peppers are known as a funk-rock band, but here they went acoustic with no drums. It’s about a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway where they surfed at Big Sur, a place I continually go back to.
11. Earth People – Dr. Octagon – 1996 – Science Fiction Rap
Traveling is not only about going somewhere, but receiving guests from out of town. In this case, the visitor is from the planet Jupiter.
Moldavian Song and Dance – Zoltan and His Gypsy Ensemble – 1994 – Eastern European Folk
I haven’t yet been to Moldova, but I wasn’t too far away when in Romania. Of course, it’s on my list to visit, as I’m on a mission to go to every country. This song conjures up everything I think about Eastern European folk music and how the Romani would play it in a small club.
12. Running Down A Dream – Tom Petty – 1989 – Classic Rock
From Tom Petty’s first solo album, “Full Moon Fever”, the name of this song was used in a 2007 documentary of his band, The Heartbreakers. The chorus of “I’m runnin’ down a dream that never would’ve come to me…Workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads”, describes the travel around the world in Tom’s mind. I saw him at Webster Hall in 2016 with Mudcrutch, his original band. Even though I had to wait several hours for the show to begin and couldn’t move because it was so crowded, it was an excellent performance. He unexpectedly died the next year, which shows if you want to see a performer don’t wait.
13. Going Back to Cali – LL Cool J – 1988 – Old School Rap
We all have Hamlet-like moments when we can’t decide whether to travel or move to someplace in a different region. LLCJ grew up in Queens, NYC, so he (and his producer Rick Rubin) must have vacillated about transplanting to California after business trips there, as in the lyrics “I’m going back to Cali…I don’t think so”. This song was on the “Less Than Zero” soundtrack.
14. Love on a Real Train – Tangerine Dream – 1983 – Krautrock
Tangerine Dream is the quintessential example of Krautrock, initially a British term of humor and derision which caught on. The innovative rock from West Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s jettisoned blues-rock and focused on electronic, psychedelia and experimental styles. “Love on a Real Train” is their most famous song. It’s a decade-later successor to Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” but focusing on a train rather than a car. It’s on the “Risky Business” soundtrack.
15. Ramblin’ Fever – Merle Haggard – 1977 – Country
This is an unambiguous travel song about a man that has to constantly take to the highway. It has been covered by many musicians, including Willie Nelson.
16. City of New Orleans – Arlo Guthrie – 1972 – Folk
Steve Goodman wrote and recorded this song about a train ride from Chicago to New Orleans on the Illinois Central Railroad’s City of New Orleans. It has a sentimental and nostalgic mood. Arlo Guthrie, son of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, made the definitive version.
17. Not Fade Away/Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad – Grateful Dead -1971 – Traditional Americana
This is my favorite live song of the Dead and I haven’t tired of listening to it for decades. It starts off with Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and seamlessly transitions into “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad”. This is a traditional song, also known as “Lonesome Road Blues”, covered by many. During bad times in one’s life, who couldn’t relate to “Going where the climate suits my clothes…Don’t wanna be treated this a way”.
18. My Friend Jack – The Smoke – 1967 – Psychedelic Rock
I identify with this song, as my friends can’t keep track of my trips around the world. When my travel rhythm is on, every few months I take a trip that would be an adventure of a lifetime for many. Jack, unlike me, seems to be involved in the business of illicit, recreational drugs as noted in the lyrics “kids call him sugarman”. In any case, he’s an adaptable fellow who has seen more than the average Joe can imagine.
19. King of the Road – Roger Miller – 1965 – Country
This song revels in the life of a happy hobo. While the reality of a wandering poor person is usually bleak, there’s something to being free without obligations. When I was in college, I hitchhiked to San Francisco from Boulder, Colorado with a lady friend. On the way back, we hopped on a freight train and rode a few hours. It was cold, uncomfortable and definitely not glamorous. I did it once and never had a desire to do it again.
20. Forty Miles of Bad Road – Duane Eddy – 1959 – Rockabilly
Duane Eddy developed a recognizable twangy sound with his guitar which was fun, raunchy and danceable. Most trips have stretches of bad road. If they are not there, it’s probably a stay in a cushy hotel or luxury resort, not something I frequent much.
21. Ballad of Thunder Road – Jim and Jesse – 1957 – Ballad
The original song was sung and co-written by Robert Mitchum, the film-noir and tough-guy actor with a baritone voice and drooping eyelids. Mitchum also starred in the movie of the same name about a moonshiner pursued by revenuers through little towns and mountain roads. I like Jim and Jesse’s version as the bluegrass strings are amazing. I relate to this song, as my father had a second job for a number of years delivering Denver Post newspapers to mountain residences. Sometimes I would go with him after school on the 93-mile round-trip journey to Coal Creek Canyon. I still remember the twisting mountain roads and homes hidden by rocks and pine trees.
22. Highway 61 Blues – Gatemouth Moore – 1947 – Blues
Highway 61, between New Orleans and Wyoming, Minnesota, is the most famous highway in American music. Every blues singer worth his slide-guitar has sung a version of it. One of Bob Dylan’s greatest albums is “Highway 61 Revisited”, complete with the title song. Gatewood’s version with a boogie-woogie piano still swings.
23. Take the A Train – Duke Ellington – 1943 – Big Band Jazz
I always liked this song, along with millions of others. However, it wasn’t until I moved to the Sugar Hill Historic District next to the express stop, did I appreciate “You must take the “A” train…To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem…If you miss the “A” train…You’ll find you missed the quickest way to Harlem”.
25. Ol’ Man River – Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra with Bix Beiderbecke & Bing Crosby – 1927 – Show Tune
This song is from the musical “Show Boat” and is forever associated with singer Paul Robeson. I found this early version with Bing Crosby. I’m not a fan of most Bing’s songs, but somehow this one appeals to me.
I know I said 25 songs, but here’s a bonus.
Many Rivers to Cross – Jimmy Cliff – 1969 – Reggae
From my travels, I find reggae to be the most popular music in the world. I’ve heard it everywhere, from Vanuatu to Venezuela. After completing this list, I noticed I didn’t have a reggae song and that just wasn’t right. Jimmy wrote and recorded this song at age 21 in 1969. The linked video of an acoustic version in 2012 demonstrates his voice stayed strong with age. I can attest to this. In 2013, I went to see a free concert of his in Central Park’s SummerStage. I arrived too late and couldn’t get in, but I listened outside and it was abundantly clear to me this was an extraordinary singer.
These songs can be inspirational even if you can’t travel but someday would like to. If you have any suggestions of cool travel songs, let me know by replying to this post.