Imagine attending a choral concert in a century-old church. Instead of monochromatic robes, the choristers emerge in bright, radiant color with bold geometric design. The colors of the robes are a musical key, made visual—yellow for the soprano, orange for the contralto, red for the tenor, and purple for the bass. As the choristers sing and sway, the robes come alive, a modern counterpoint to the traditional church interior.
Imagination aside, this is a scene familiar to those who have watched the Hope College Chapel Choir perform. Originally a creation of Charles and Ray Eames from the 1950s, faithful replicas of the robes continue to be used.
The Hope College Chapel Choir at Dimnent Chapel, circa 2001. Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.
Although husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames collaborated in nearly everything, it was Ray who showed an early and enduring interest in textiles and fashion design. The daughter of a theatre aficionado and manager, she attended the Bennett School for Girls, a two-year college in Millbrook, New York, earning a degree in Fashion Design in 1933. She completed fashion sketches throughout her life—even creating original paper dolls with custom clothing, complete with the tabs used to affix the clothing onto the doll! She designed a few textiles (one of which—“Crosspatch”—won an honorable mention in a 1946 Museum of Modern Art competition) and dedicated significant energy into the design and creation of her own clothing. The clothes she designed for herself and for Charles are quintessential Eames—functional yet beautiful, with playful delights to be found in the details.
D.J. De Pree, the founder and president of the Herman Miller Furniture Company (which produced Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture), was known for his religious fervor. Further, the company is headquartered in Zeeland, Michigan, a Dutch-American enclave with deep Protestant Christian roots. So, when an employee suggested the creation of a company-sponsored chorus in 1952 (something that might otherwise have been an unusual corporate activity), the De Prees granted it legitimacy, naming it the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus and inviting the chorus to perform at company and company-sponsored events. They soon required choral robes to outfit the company chorus and asked Charles and Ray Eames to design them.
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Soprano and Contralto Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75585, THF75580
With Ray’s background, it is likely that she was primarily responsible for the design, although as always in collaboration with her husband. The robes are bold and colorful and make a statement, but they are also functional. Their symbolism is evidence of the Eames’ signature research-heavy process and attention to detail. The colors of the robes identify the vocal type (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and each color’s hue (from light to dark) corresponds with the vocal range (from high to low). The horizontal black lines at the center of each robe reference the musical staff. Charles and Ray may have scoured the extensive Eames Office reference library to ensure symbolic depth and accuracy. Or, perhaps, this came from an ingrained knowledge of music. They enjoyed a variety of musical types, like jazz, folk, and classical, and music was a major component of the films they produced throughout their life, often collaborating with talented composers like Elmer Bernstein. The theatrical backdrop of Ray’s childhood, her interest in textiles and fashion, and the Eames’ interest in music coalesce in these robes.
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Tenor and Bass Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75574, THF75569
The robes were designed at the Eames Office in Los Angeles, but it is unknown whether the robes were created there and shipped, finished, to Zeeland, or if the patterns and fabric were shipped and the robes were then sewn locally.
By 1960, the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus was disbanded, and Hugh De Pree, son of D.J. De Pree, donated the robes to the Hope College Chapel Choir in the neighboring city of Holland, Michigan, where the family had deep connections. The Hope College Chapel Choir was larger than the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus, so more robes had to be made. Doris Schrotenboer and Millie Grinwis, a mother and daughter team from Zeeland, made the extra. Millie Grinwis recalls that the fabric and patterns were shipped from the Eames Office to her mother’s home, where they were painstakingly put together.
After over 44 years in use, the original robes were retired in 2004. Unwilling, however, to part with the signature design, Hope College commissioned replicas, albeit in a slightly lighter fabric. The original robes were donated to several institutions. At The Henry Ford, these robes add an extra dimension to our design collections, as well as another way to better understand the many talents of Charles and Ray Eames.
The Hope College Chapel Choir recording at Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV, circa 1965. / Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She is also an alumnus of Hope College, where she was first delighted by these robes! Thank you to Geoffrey Reynolds at the Joint Archives of Holland for graciously sharing pictures of the Hope College Chapel Choir through the years.
Kalamazoo, Michigan, is known for its industry. For a relatively small midwestern city, it became a leader in the production of an impressive number of products, some more readily remembered today than others—including celery, paper, stoves, taxicabs, guitars, craft beer, and pharmaceuticals. At the turn of the 20th century, the Kalamazoo Corset Company gave the city more reasons to be noticed—for its high output of corsets, the advertising used to sell them, and for an historic labor strike, led primarily by women.
The Kalamazoo Corset Company began as the Featherbone Corset Company. The company’s name changed in 1894, a few years after the company was relocated 70+ miles from Three Oaks, Michigan, to the city of Kalamazoo. As the original name suggests, the company prided itself on its innovative use of turkey wing feathers—“featherbone”—which replaced the occasionally malodorous whalebone corsets (while these corsets were referred to as containing “whalebone,” it was actually whale baleen that was used, which is not bone).
While the company featured numerous lines of corsets, by 1908, they were focusing on advertising for their “American Beauty” line. These corsets were named to reflect a version of an idealized American woman—an “American Beauty.” Charles Dana Gibson had created his version of the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness, the “Gibson Girl,” during the 1890s—this “American Beauty” followed in her footsteps. The company’s use of “American Beauty” also likely referenced a deep crimson hybrid rose bred in Europe in 1875, which by the turn of the 20th century was popularized in America as the rather expensive American Beauty Rose. By associating their corset line with both the concept of the quintessential American girl and the coveted American Beauty Rose, they were sending a message to the consumer—"buy our corset and you too will take on these qualities!”
Promotional songs that advertised a product were becoming increasingly popular at the time. Since the end of the Civil War, Americans had been purchasing parlor pianos for their homes in great numbers—as many as 25,000 per year. The parlor piano became the center of most Americans’ musical experience. Music publishers, like those in the famous Tin Pan Alley of New York City, took note and sold sheet music aimed at these amateur musicians. The rise of music publishing led to a new mode of advertising for retailers and manufacturers. How better to promote your product than by creating a tune that consumers could play in their homes? It seems the Kalamazoo Corset Company agreed, hiring Harry H. Zickel and the Zickel Bros. to write three such songs to advertise the “American Beauty” line: the “American Beauty March and Two-Step” (1908), “My American Beauty Rose: Ballad” (1910), and “My American Beauty Girl” (1912).
Around the time these songs were being written, issues at the company began to come to light. The company was a major employer in the area, employing 1026 people, 835 of whom were women, in 1911. This made the company the largest employer of women in Kalamazoo. First in 1911, and then again in 1912, around 800 mostly female workers went on strike. They formed the Kalamazoo Corset Workers’ Union, Local 82 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and protested unequal wages, unsanitary working conditions, and sexual harassment.
The strike gained national attention and the ILGWU headquarters in New York City sent well-known women’s rights advocates Josephine Casey and Pauline Newman to Kalamazoo to assist in the negotiations. The strike looked to New York as an example—the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and subsequent “Uprising of the 20,000” strike of 1909–1910 had sparked more uprisings, some far from New York City, as in Kalamazoo’s example.
The protesters received support from local unions, but the owner of the company, James Hatfield, was a prominent Kalamazoo businessman and was well-liked among his upper-class peers. Local women’s organizations did not come to the aid of the protestors. Even the local group of suffragettes did not openly support the strike, possibly due to class issues (the suffragettes were upper class, while the women protesting were working class) or because their focus was on getting a women’s suffrage amendment to the state’s constitution passed. The women of the Kalamazoo Corset Company faced an uphill battle to obtain even a semblance of equality in the workplace.
The strike ended on June 15, 1912, ultimately unsuccessful. While an agreement was reached which addressed many of Local 82’s demands, no measures were put in place to ensure adherence, and the company quickly lapsed in its promises. Within just a few years, James Hatfield left the company to begin another, and the company was renamed Grace Corset Company. Between the financial woes wrought by the strike and changing fashions, difficult days for the company were ahead.
The Kalamazoo Corset Company’s business was women—manufacturing garments for women, shaping idealized notions of women—but it was still unable to adequately value the many women it employed by creating an equitable and safe workplace. In the end, the inability of the company to recognize the value of the gender by which they made their business helped to ensure its downfall.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
The Henry Ford’s archives contain a great deal of material about radio and television shows produced or sponsored by Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company. Here is just a small sampling of the types of items and shows covered.
Henry Ford began broadcasting over his WWI radio station in 1922. Early broadcasts featured musical acts from company bands, such as the Ford Motor Company Band and the Ford Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra. Later broadcasts expanded the talent pool to acts across the United States, including singers, bands, soloists, and even the California Bird Man.
Ford Motor Company Radio Station WWI, Dearborn, Michigan, February 1924. / THF134739
The Ford Sunday Evening Hour was a popular radio show produced by Ford. This show was broadcast from 1934–1942 (and then again from 1945–1946). The show was performed live in Detroit, first at Orchestra Hall and then at the Masonic Temple, and broadcast over the CBS radio network. Musical pieces were played by 75 members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the name the Ford Symphony Orchestra, with each show featuring guest star soloists and singers.
Ford Sunday Evening Hour program, October 7, 1934. / THF137776
Ford Sunday Evening Hour Dealer Display, 1938.The program was broadcast across the U.S. and was advertised by Ford dealers all over the country. / THF269154
In the summer, the Ford Summer Hour offered lighter, more popular tunes. This program used a smaller 32-piece orchestra and sometimes featured Ford employee bands such as the River Rouge Ramblers and the Champion Pipe Band.
Ford Summer Hour program, August 24, 1941. / THF134690
Ford Motor Company sponsored their share of television programs in the 1940s and 1950s as well. The Lincoln-Mercury division sponsored Toast of the Town, later The Ed Sullivan Show. The archives holds this scrapbook of reviews of the first season of the show (or shew) in 1948.
The 50th anniversary of Ford Motor Company in 1953 was a big celebration. Paintings were commissioned by Norman Rockwell to depict the company history, calendars were assembled, banquets and celebrations were planned worldwide, and the company put together a TV special to celebrate its 50-year history.
Advertisement, "Ford 50th Anniversary Show," June 15, 1953 / THF622247
The TV program featured many well-known performers, many of whom signed Benson Ford’s personal copy of the script.
Script for the Ford Motor Company 50th Anniversary TV Show, Broadcast June 15, 1953 / THF622239, THF622240
These are only a few of the radio and TV shows produced or sponsored by Ford over the years. The archive at the Benson Ford Research Center has additional material, including scripts, ratings, and public relations analysis reports, for several of these shows. Some of these items may be viewed in our Digital Collections, while others have yet to be digitized. While the reading room at the Benson Ford Research Center remains closed at present for research, if you have any questions, please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An image from the set of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.
For many people—especially those who grew up between the decades of the 1970s through the 1990s—the sight of a boombox often prompts the thought: “I wonder how heavy that thing would feel, if I carried it around on my shoulder?” Boomboxes are infused with the promise of human interaction, ready for active use—to be slung from arm to arm, hoisted up on a shoulder, or planted with purpose on a park bench or an empty slice of asphalt in a city somewhere.
Here at The Henry Ford, we recently acquired a trio of classic boomboxes to document stories about the growth of mobile media and the social communication of music in American culture.
The Norelco 22RL962 was developed in the mid-1960s by the Dutch company, Philips. A combination radio and compact cassette player, it had recording and playback functions as well as a carrying handle. While it was generally thought of as the first device that could be accurately called a “boombox,” the Norelco failed to gain mass traction. The core issue wasn’t due to poor performance from a technological standpoint, but rather the bad sound quality of the tapes. In 1965, the American engineer Ray Dolby invented the Dolby Noise Reduction system, which led to clean, hiss-free sound on compact cassette tapes. His invention sparked a revolution in hi-fi cassette audio.
The ubiquitous compact cassette tape.
In the early 1970s, Japanese manufacturers began to make advancements in boombox technology as an outgrowth of modular hi-fi stereo components. Living spaces in Japan were typically small, and there was a desire to condense electronics into compact devices without losing sound quality.
Later that decade, the improved boombox made its way to the United States, where it was embraced by hip hop, punk, and new wave musicians and fans—many of whom lived in large cities like New York and Los Angeles. In many ways, the boombox was a protest device, as youth culture used them to broadcast politically charged music in public spaces.
An early image of the Brooklyn Bridge and New York Skyline. THF113708
Boomboxes literally changed the sonic fabric of cities, but this effect was divisive. By the mid-1980s, noise pollution laws began to restrict their use in public. The golden years of the boombox were also short lived due to the rising popularity and affordability of personal portable sound devices like the Sony Walkman (and later, the MP3 player), which turned music into a private, insular experience.
This boombox was built for the street, and it is meant to be played loud. Its design is rugged, with a carrying handle and protective “roll bars” in case it is dropped. Many classic photos from the early years of hip-hop depict fans and musicians carrying the El Diablo around cities and on the subway in New York.
The JVC RC-550 is a member of what sound historians refer to as the “holy trinity” of innovative boomboxes. While the origins of its “El Diablo” nickname are uncertain, it is believed to stem from the impressive volume of sound it can transmit—or its flashing red sound meters. It is a monophonic boombox, meaning that it has one main speaker and it is incapable of reproducing sound in stereo. A massive offset 10-inch woofer dominates its design, coupled with smaller midrange and tweeter speakers. As with most boomboxes of this time, bass and treble levels could be adjusted.
An input for an external microphone led to the RC-550 being advertised as a mobile personal amplifier system. Brochures from the Japanese version show the boombox being used by salesmen to amplify their pitches in front of crowds, as a sound system in a bar, and by a singing woman accompanied by a guitarist. Recording could take place directly through the tape deck, or through the microphone on top, which could be rotated 360-degrees.
JVC 838 Biphonic Boombox The JVC 838 is important for its transitional design. It was one of the first boomboxes to incorporate the symmetrical arrangement of components that would become standard in 1980s portable stereos: visually balanced speakers, buttons and knobs, and a centered cassette deck.
As boombox designs evolved, they began to include (almost to the point of parody) sound visualization components such as VU meters and other electronic indicators. In many cases, these were purely for visual effect rather than function. The needle VU meters on the JVC 838 however, were accurate.
A unique feature of the JVC 838 boombox is its “BiPhonic” sound—a spatial stereo feature that creates a “being there” effect through its binaural speaker technology, resulting in “three-dimensional depth, spaciousness, and pinpoint imaging.” The box also includes an “expand” effect to widen the sound even further.
Sharp GF-777 “Searcher.” THF177382 Sharp “Searcher” GF-777 The Sharp “Searcher” GF-777 is an exercise in excess. Often referred to as the “king of the boomboxes,” it was also one of the largest ever produced. Weighing thirty pounds (minus ten D-cell batteries) and measuring over one foot tall and two feet wide, it took a certain amount of lifestyle commitment to carry this device around a city.
The Searcher played a key part in the performance and representation of hip-hop music. Its six speakers include four woofers individually tuned for optimal bass transmission and amplitude. It appeared in a photograph on the back cover of the first Run-DMC album, found its way into several music videos, and was photographed alongside breakdancing crews.
Many people used this boombox as an affordable personal recording studio. Two high quality tape decks opened the possibility for people to create “pause tapes” – a way of creating looped beats through queuing, recording, rewinding, and repeating a short phrase of music. A microphone input and an onboard echo effect meant people could rap or sing over top of music backing tracks.
Much like Thomas Edison’s phonograph, the boombox came full circle, allowing people to record and play back music for public and communal consumption. And while they may not mesh with our ideas of what a “mobile” device is in our age of smartphones and streaming services, their reach permeated popular culture in the 1970s well into the 1990s. Sometimes acting as portable sound systems, sometimes used as affordable personal recording studios—carrying a boombox through the streets (wherever you happened to live) was as much a fashion statement and lifestyle choice as it was a celebration of music and social technology.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
Motown Record Album, “The Great March to Freedom: Rev. Martin Luther King Speaks, June 23, 1963.” THF31935
Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, held on June 23, 1963, helped move the southern Civil Rights struggle to a new focus on the urban North. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. later called this march “one of the most wonderful things that has happened in America.”
Organized by the Detroit Council on Human Rights, this was the largest Civil Rights demonstration to date. Its main purpose was to speak out against Southern segregation and the brutality that faced Civil Rights activists there. It was also meant to raise consciousness about the unique concerns of African Americans in the urban North, which included discriminatory hiring practices, wages, education, and housing. The date was chosen to correlate with both the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 20th anniversary of the 1943 Detroit race riots that had left 34 people (mostly African American) dead. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who agreed to lead the march, had by this time become committed to uniting both North and South through his grand vision of achieving racial justice by using non-violent protest.
On the day of the march, about 125,000 people filed down Woodward Avenue, singing freedom songs and carrying signs demanding racial equality. Some 15,000 spectators watched them pass by a 21-block area before turning west down Jefferson Avenue to Cobo Hall. Cobo was filled to capacity to hear the speeches of the march’s leaders while thousands more listened to them on loudspeakers outside. Of the speeches given that day, Dr. King’s was the most memorable. People were riveted while he expressed his vision for the future, sharing a dream that foreshadowed the “I Have a Dream” speech that he would give a few months later at the March on Washington.
Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown Record Corporation, considered Detroit’s Walk to Freedom to be such a historic event that he offered the resources of his Hitsville studio to produce a record album documenting Dr. King’s impassioned words. Gordy heightened the drama of the event by titling the album, “The Great March to Freedom: Reverend Martin Luther King Speaks.” He believed that this record belonged in every home, that it should be required listening for “every child, white or black.” No one realized at the time, including Gordy, that the August March on Washington would become the more remembered event.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams of social justice, voiced at Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, would prove elusive. Despite the fact that Detroit had gained a national reputation for being a “model city” of race relations at the time, in reality the city’s African-American population faced unemployment, housing discrimination, de facto segregation in public schools, and police brutality. Ultimately this disconnect between perception and reality would lead to the violence and civil unrest of July 1967.
For more on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held on August 28, 1963, take a look at this post.
Donna R. Braden is the Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
In the digital age, it’s easy to keep up with your favorite bands—you might sign up for their email list, follow them on social media, or get text alerts on your phone. In any of these cases, you’ll probably know when they’re coming to your town to perform.
In the mid-20th century, though, posters were a way to show potential fans which acts would be performing, where, and when. Bright colors, bold graphics, and dramatic fonts caught the attention of passers-by in cities where dozens of venues competed for audiences.
With the 50th anniversary of the Summer Of Love just a few months away, we’ve just digitized a few great examples of rock posters dating between 1969 and 1971, including this poster advertising Chuck Berry, the Sir Douglas Quintet, and Boz Scaggs at Pepperland in San Rafael, California, in 1970.
Update: This post was originally written on March 13, 2017, only a few days before Chuck Berry’s death at the age of 90. I obviously had no foreknowledge of that event to come, but this poster, out of all the ones we digitized, caught my eye because Mr. Berry holds such a large place in our collective memory, and is an artist I deeply respect and enjoy. I’m glad that The Henry Ford is able to preserve and share some of his quintessentially American legacy. Hail, hail, Chuck Berry—may you rest in peace and your music live on. –Ellice Engdahl, 3/20/17 Ellice Engdahl is Digital Strategy Manager, Collections & Content at The Henry Ford.
Late last year, I was invited to present to students at Wayne State University in Detroit. Their seminar, “Women Who Motor,” examined the many connections between American women and the automobile industry, whether as the producers who design and build cars, or as the consumers who buy and drive them. The class also studied depictions of women and their autos in popular culture, from literature, to film, to music. That’s where I came in – with a look at the relationship between women and automobiles in popular song.
It’s no great revelation that the automobile is fertile inspiration for pop music. The car is a rolling metaphor for social status, wealth, style and any of a hundred other things. Sing about someone in a Cadillac, and you paint a picture of an affluent sophisticate; sing about someone in a Chevrolet, and you describe someone more down-to-earth or – if that Chevy is old and tired – someone down on her luck. In other words, the car is a spectacular lyrical shortcut. (And I’ve said nothing about the car as a metaphor for romantic activities… but I will.) In sharing some examples with the students, I broke female-focused car songs into three general groups: 1.) those about using the car to attract a mate, 2.) those about the car as a setting for romance, and 3.) those about women behind the wheel.
If you've kept an eye on our Flex Gallery in Henry Ford Museum the past few weeks you've likely seen the "coming soon" signage for our latest exhibit, "Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power." In just a few days the exhibit, presented to us from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, will open to the public and we couldn't be more excited. With a diverse collection of artists and genres, a visit to "Women Who Rock" will surely inspire you to flip through your collection of records, rummage through a stack of mixtapes or have your scrolling through your favorite playlists.
I asked Jeanine Head Miller, our curator of domestic life, to speak to two concert posters in our digital collections. Both created by concert poster artist Mark Arminski in the 1990s, the posters' artwork captures important moments in both popular culture and the musicians' lives.
Singer Sarah McLachlan was frustrated by conventional wisdom—concert promoters and radio stations had long refused to feature two female musicians in a row. McLachlan took action, organizing a concert tour and traveling music festival called Lilith Fair (poster picture above). Featuring only female artists and female-led bands--including well-known performers and emerging artists--the hugely successful Lilith Fair took place the summers of 1997 through 1999.
Patti Smith was one of the pioneers of hard-edged punk rock in the 1970s. In 1995, when she performed this concert, Smith was reentering the music scene after the unexpected death of her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. Patti Smith was on the cusp of artistic rebirth—fueled by her ability to reshape her music to speak to new generations.
Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford. Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power is at Henry Ford Museum May 17-August 17, 2014.
Was there a group better than The Beach Boys to write so longingly about the automobile? (Object ID: 87.170.1)February is upon us and, with Valentine’s Day in the offing, our thoughts turn to love. Red roses and paper hearts are fine, but to me nothing is quite as romantic as a love song. Whether it’s from an old master of the Berlin-Gershwin-Porter variety, or from one of today’s stars, a simple love song communicates emotion in a wholly unique way. Anyone who has explored the “Car Tunes” activity in Driving America knows that automobiles have been a staple in popular songs from the start. It was inevitable, then, that the car song and the love song would blend. In the spirit of the holiday, I thought I’d share a few of my favorites.
Many words have been written on the automobile’s effects on our courtship rituals. (See John Heitmann’s The Automobile in American Life for a good discussion.) Prior to the car, a young man “called” on a young woman at her home under her mother’s watchful eyes. The couple might find a few moments of privacy on the front porch, but that was about it. The automobile threw the old rules out the window and gave couples a literal escape from the confines of the home. It either took them somewhere where they could, ahem, be affectionate, or was itself the place for their amorous activities.
Kenny Roberts, the Yodeling Cowboy, voices this shift in his 1949 hit “I Never See Maggie Alone.” As the title suggests, Kenny can’t get a private moment with Maggie – her large family is always there. He buys a car for a little seclusion, takes Maggie for a ride, but… Well, I won’t spoil it for you, but you probably know what happens. Fast forward 30 years and you’ll find Robbie Dupree covering the same ground in “Hot Rod Hearts” from 1980. Times have changed, though. While Kenny and Maggie were merely “huggin’ and kissin,” Robbie has “young love born in a backseat.” One suspects there’s more than innocent necking at play.
How do you listen to your favorite song in your car today? (Zenith "Zenette" Transistor Radio, 1960-1963, Object ID: 92.46.2).
When the car isn’t providing young lovers with a means to get away together, it’s often the means to bring them together. Many tunes tell of someone driving through the night to reach a significant other. Cyndi Lauper made a big hit out of this very scenario with 1989’s “I Drove All Night.” It’s been an enduring song, with subsequent hit versions from Roy Orbison and Celine Dion. (Celine’s version even backed a series of Chrysler commercials in the early 2000s.)
Classic Rock fans recognize the “drive to romance” concept from Golden Earring’s 1973 smash “Radar Love.” While the title refers to the lovers’ seemingly telepathic connection, the opening couplet is pure road song: “I’ve been drivin’ all night, my hands wet on the wheel / there’s a voice in my head that drives my heel.” Country fans, meanwhile, might be reminded of Dave Dudley’s 1963 cut “Six Days On the Road.” In this case, the narrator is a professional truck driver longing to get home, but the sentiment is the same: “Well it seems like a month since I kissed my baby goodbye… My hometown’s comin’ in sight / If you think I’m happy you’re right / Six days on the road and I’m a gonna make it home tonight.”
Tom Waits puts a nice spin on the situation with his 1973 song “Ol’ 55” (memorably covered by the Eagles in 1974). Instead of driving his car to his lover, he’s driving back home from his lover. So warm is the afterglow that traffic is a “parade” as he rides “with lady luck.” In the song itself, Waits never identifies his vehicle beyond a model year. In subsequent interviews, he’s pegged it as a 1955 Buick Roadmaster, but I still picture a Chevrolet.
Chuck Berry is often cited as “rock and roll’s poet laureate.” His witty lyrics helped to establish rock’s very structure during the formative 1950s. It’s no surprise that Berry created some memorable car songs. His very first hit, 1955’s “Maybellene,” is one of the genre’s best. We find Chuck cruising in his hot rod Ford V-8 when he spies the eponymous Maybellene in her Cadillac Coupe de Ville. They race down the highway, “bumper to bumper, rollin’ side to side.” An overheated engine threatens to end Chuck’s race, but a well-timed cloudburst cools his flathead and allows him to catch the Caddy at 110 miles per hour. While the race goes Chuck’s way, the “Why can’t you be true” chorus suggests that the romantic relationship doesn’t work out so well.
Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are rightfully credited as the masters of the car song. They gave us “Little Deuce Coupe,” “I Get Around,” “Custom Machine,” “This Car of Mine,” “Shut Down” and a host of other hot rod hits. (And really, who else but the masters could have written a song – and a good one at that – inspired by engine displacement?) But Wilson & Co.’s genius with the genre is perhaps most evident in the haunting “Don’t Worry Baby.” Casual listeners will hear the oft-told tale of a man who draws strength and support from his significant other. Those who listen more closely, though, will hear a song about… a car race! Brian boasts about his car, talks himself into a race, and shares his apprehensions with his love. She reassures him – makes him come alive, makes him want to drive – when she shares the titular advice. One of my favorite things about the song – apart from that deft modulation from E to F# between verse and chorus – is the ambiguity in the ending. We never do find out if Brian wins his race, but I suppose that’s beside the point. “Don’t Worry Baby” is the rare track that thick-skinned gear heads and sensitive poets can both embrace.
Among the most atmospheric car/love songs has to be 1984’s “Drive” by the Cars. (And, by the way, how’s that for title/artist synergy?) While the song is open to wide interpretation, I think of it as being about a relationship strained by chemical dependency. The central question, “Who’s gonna drive you home,” is rhetorical. The narrator pleads that his lover “can’t go on / thinkin’ nothing’s wrong” as he watches her self-destruct. If he leaves, then who will be left to care for her? “Drive” isn’t a roll-down-the-windows and rock-down-the-highway hit, but it is a reminder that car songs can be subtle.
Maybe the best twist on the car song/love song style is when the car itself is the object of the singer’s affections. Dan Seals’s 1985 country hit, “My Old Yellow Car,” is the perfect example. It’s a sentimental ballad in which, despite all of his fame and fortune (he’s “got a Mercedes-Benz with a TV and bar”), the thing Dan pines for most is his first car. Even though “she weren’t much to look at / she weren’t much to ride,” this yellow car made young Dan the king of the world: “There was no road too winding / there was nowhere too far / with two bucks of gas in my old yellow car.” It’s emotional stuff, and by the end of the song we realize just what that first car represents. It’s more than empowerment and independence; it’s a talisman of lost youth. There’s a reason we all get nostalgic about our first rides, no matter how humble they were.
Enjoy your Valentine’s Day everyone. Light a few candles, open a bottle of wine, and put together your own playlist of favorite car-related love songs. It’ll put you in a romantic mood – and tide you over until its time to pull the classic out of winter storage.
Like the songs you heard here? Watch them on YouTube or log into Hypster and listen to the whole list.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford
Hollis Baird (1905-1990) was an inventor, entrepreneur, and, eventually, engineering teacher. Born along the Maine/New Brunswick border, by the mid-1920s Baird had made his way to Boston. He was active in the exciting field of television—in the 1920s and ‘30s. We usually associate television with the prosperous years after World War II, but inventors had been attempting to send pictures over radio waves for many decades. One of the few surviving Baird televisions is in the collections of The Henry Ford.
Mechanical television is based on the premise that a spinning disk can scan an image to be sent by radio, which can then be received by another spinning disk synchronized to the first. Hollis Baird produced televisions as the Baird Receiver Company from 1925-8, after which he founded a company with A.M. Morgan and Butler Perry called the Shortwave and Television Laboratory. Shortwave and Television sold radios and mechanical televisions and, beginning in April 1929, operated Boston’s second experimental television station, W1WX (later known as W1XAV,) which transmitted 60-line mechanical television images, including a speech by Boston’s mayor in 1931.
The television (39.554.1) is a Shortwave and Television Laboratory Model 26/36, sold as a kit or as a finished set. This was the viewer; it would have been connected to a radio receiver. That’s a 3” screen, for watching narrow-band television programming.
Historian of television and The Henry Ford volunteer Tom Genova operates a television history website, where he has put up a wonderful Shortwave and Television Laboratory brochure from 1930 called The Romance and Reality of Television. The brochure clearly explains how mechanical television works and seems aimed at a broader audience than the radio amateurs who usually bought early televisions.
After Shortwave and Television Laboratory dissolved operations in 1935, Baird and his colleagues founded a new company called General Television Corporation. During this time Baird also taught radio telegraphy at a school in Boston. After General Television, too, was shuttered in 1941, Hollis Baird moved on to a career as an educator. He taught electrical engineering and physics at Northeastern University’s Lincoln Institute, starting in 1942 as part of the Engineering, Science, and Management War Training program. He retired in 1976 after a long career as professor and administrator.
Baird had the fortune—or misfortune—of sharing his last name with John Logie Baird, one of the inventors of mechanical television. The colorful Scottish inventor and entrepreneur (early products included soap and socks for trench warfare) demonstrated television at London’s Selfridge’s department store in 1925 and had convinced the BBC to produce television programming through the 20s and 30s.
On this side of the Atlantic, Hollis Baird, who was no relation, took pains in Baird Receiver Company advertising to say that his products were not, in fact, made by the other Baird. The fact that he needed to put disclaimers in his advertisements indicates that this was a common problem, one that Hollis Baird probably didn’t mind if it led to better sales. But the name confusion has meant that Hollis Baird’s name has been mostly occluded by John Logie Baird’s. Even experts were confused: when this television was last on exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum, the label identified it as a John Logie Baird TV. Luckily, this Baird television is such a compelling object that it rewards further research—uncovering the story of an American inventor in a field that no longer exists.
Thanks to Michelle Romero at the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections for research assistance.
Suzanne Fischer is the Associate Curator of Technology at The Henry Ford. She typed this post on an 1880s index typewriter and sent it to the blog editor via telex.