Angry (but singing)
The Heritage Coffee House across from the Rike Center on campus was the ideal place to meet a history professor. Before becoming a gathering place, it housed a collection of UD memorabilia (after having served years as the University’s post office).
What made it particularly ideal for me, however, was the fact that, a short walk from my office, it offered the blends of 3-19 Coffee as well as Boosalis pastries served by a customer-oriented Flyer Enterprises staff.
Todd Uhlman, whose field is socio-cultural history, joined me at one of the outside tables, filled mostly by students, one from a class he had just taught. Another had been in his class that created the online history of the University of Dayton Arena. A benefit of that participation was, he said, that he could mention it on a second date. If the young lady were not impressed, well ... if one doesn’t like UD basketball, farewell.
Once the student greetings subsided, Uhlman and I talked of unsettled times, populist rebels, their anger at a government whose authority they questioned, economic uncertainty, worldwide unrest. We weren’t discussing current events. He is a history professor. We were talking of the 1970s.
We weren’t discussing current events. He is a history professor. We were talking of the 1970s.
One critical day then was Dec. 3, 1973. On that day a truck owned and operated by J.W. Edwards ran out of fuel on Interstate 80 in eastern Pennsylvania. An oil embargo by OPEC had led to a rapid rise in fuel prices. The U.S. economy, already shaky, had fallen into recession. Economic growth stagnated; inflation and unemployment soared.
With diesel fuel rationed, Edwards had to make numerous stops, being able to get only a few gallons at a time. He knew that President Nixon, to further conserve fuel, was considering lowering the speed limit to 55 (which Nixon did in the next month). All this threatened Edwards’ livelihood.
Edwards had had enough. He did not pull his out-of-fuel rig to the side of the road. He stopped it in the middle of the interstate. Other truckers joined him. Traffic backed up for a dozen miles in both directions. Most Americans, rather than express anger with the truckers, supported them. They became America’s heroes.
Songs and films during the decade glorified truckers. “I’ve watched 29 trucker films from the 1970s. One or two are decent. Otherwise, they are really bad,” Uhlman said.
“I’ve watched 29 trucker films from the 1970s. One or two are decent. Otherwise, they are really bad.”
But they did have soundtracks, many with songs sung by country music stars. I learned Uhlman knows a lot about trucker music. “Perhaps the most important trucker tune of all time,” he has written, “was C. W. McCall’s sensation, ‘Convoy.’ ‘Convoy’ mixed a strident anti-authority message with a spirit of fun-loving mayhem.”
And it hit No. 1 on both the country and pop charts.
It’s about a trucker with the CB handle of “Rubber Duck.” (In pre-smart-phone days, citizens band radio was a form of communication among truckers. The general public picked up its jargon from songs, television and films.) Rubber Duck and two other drivers refuse, Uhlman wrote, “to bow to the police, the ICC rules, and the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit.”
Uhlman has found trucker songs going back to the 1920s. The first, “Truck Driver’s Blues,” was written by a man who noticed that the first thing truckers did when entering a roadside café was to put a coin in a juke box. Many of the early drivers were men who’d lost their farms or their jobs, were lonely and had little to lose. Themes evolved of loneliness, hours on the road, long-suffering wives, faithful (or not so faithful) husbands, rugged individuality, a lack of respect for authority and rebellion.
Independent truckers became like cowboys on wheels. The 1978 movie Convoy, starring Kris Kristofferson, was directed by Sam Peckinpah, famous for his violent westerns. In the movie, Uhlman wrote, Kristofferson “blends the powers of the rambling male archetype: sexual conquest, radical individualism, fanatical anti-authoritarian independence, and mastery over others.”
With the 1980s, however, Americans’ fascination with the mythical trucker subsided. Interstate highways and CBs were no longer novel. The economy was better. The gap between the myth and the reality became clearer.
Emblematic perhaps of the change was a 1980 song by Dave Dudley, who had a huge hit in the 1960s with “Six Days on the Road.” In the earlier song, the driver is taking “little white pills” to stay awake and his speeding truck is passing everything, avoiding scales and belching black smoke.
The 1980 song is entitled “Rolaids, Doan’s Pills, and Preparation H.”
Uhlman was the featured expert on the podcast series “Songs of the Highway,” produced by Overdrive Radio on Soundcloud. His article “Truck Drivers’ Blues” appeared in Automotive History Review (Spring 2020).