Highway Song (James Taylor song)

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"Highway Song"
Single by Alex Taylor
from the album With Friends and Neighbors
B-side "C Song"
Released 1971
Genre Folk Rock
Length 3:17
Label Capricorn Records
Songwriter(s) James Taylor
Producer(s) Johnny Sandlin
"Highway Song"
Song by James Taylor
from the album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon
Released 1971
Recorded 1971
Genre Folk rock
Length 3:51
Label Warner Bros. Records
Songwriter(s) James Taylor
Producer(s) Peter Asher

"Highway Song" is a song written by James Taylor. It was first released by James Taylor's brother Alex Taylor on his 1971 album With Friends and Neighbors and as the lead single from the album. It was also released by James Taylor later that year on his album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.

Lyrics and music[edit]

Taylor wrote "Highway Song" in 1970 and he began playing it in live concerts during 1970, well before the release on Mudslide Slim and the New Horizon.[1][2]

Rolling Stone critic Ben Gerson contrasts "Highway Song" with another song on Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon, "Mud Slide Slim," by noting that "Highway Song" provides "a more philosophical, realistic analysis" by acknowledging that "a person chooses his circumstances as much as circumstances choose him."[3] The song describes a journey, in which the highway represents punishment but also, according to Gerson, "has an irresistable [sic], sinister allure."[3] According to Taylor biographer Timothy White, the song was inspired by the difficult traveling Taylor had to do now since becoming a star musician with the release of his first two albums, as well his own confusion about being the center of attention in his family at the time his brothers and sister were also embarking on musical careers.[4] Los Angeles Times columnist Dan Neil links Taylor's "Highway Song" with Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" as songs of "wanderlust," in which the road is used as a metaphor for the replacement of adventure and faith for security and certainty.[5] Author Grace Lichtenstein described Gram Parson's "Grievous Angel" as being a "first cousin" to "Highway Song" in its "lament about purposelessness and need for love."[6]

The lyrics begin with the lines "Father let us build a boat and sail away/There's nothing for you here/And brother let us throw our lot out upon the sea/It's been done before."[3][4] Gerson describes this as "a brief, Biblical introduction, as if Noah were preparing for the Deluge."[3] White regards this introduction as a continuation of a theme from Taylor's earlier song "Country Road," in which problems are resolved by going away.[4] Another line from the song is "Sweet misunderstanding won't you leave a poor boy alone."[4] This line referred to many misunderstandings that were accumulating around Taylor in his first exposure to fame, and particularly the misunderstanding by many listeners that the line "Won't you look down upon me Jesus" from his popular song "Fire and Rain" was meant in a fundamentalist Christian context.[4] Gerson points out that although the lyrics refer to traveling on the highway. the title "Highway Song" refers to a song he says he heard along the way, and not to the lyrics of the song itself, making this a metasong.[3]

A simple, repeated figure (music) predominates the melody.[3] According to Gerson, this "contributes to the sense of Sisyphean doom."[3] Gerson also points out that the song's "swooping bass line," played by Leland Sklar on James Taylor's recording, also contributes to the song's sense of inescapable despair.[3]

Billboard described "Highway Song" as one of James Taylor's best songs.[7] Critic Al Rudis described it as "great" song, while preferring Alex Taylor's version to James'.[8]

Alex Taylor version[edit]

Alex Taylor released "Highway Song" on With Friends and Neighbors and as a single prior to the release of his brother James' version.[8] Billboard predicted that the single would perform well on the Billboard Hot 100 despite being Taylor's debut single.[9] It did get strong radio play on some stations, such as WNUR-FM.[10] Alex' version excludes the opening lines from James' version about the father and brother sailing out to sea. Rolling Stone critic Timothy Crouse stated that Alex's singing of the "Sweet misunderstanding won't you leave a poor boy alone" line revealed his "blues streak."[11] Rudis preferred Alex's version to James' on the basis of its greater passion and what Rudis regarded as a "nicer ending."[8] Tuscaloosa News editor Ben Windham compared Alex's version to Brook Benton's rendition of "Rainy Night in Georgia," citing the "deep soul singing, sparse instrumental backing" and its use of string instruments.[12] Fred Kirby of Billboard described it as having a "rustic blues feel.[13]


  1. ^ Browne, D. (2011). Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Bittersweet Story Of 1970. Da Capo Press. pp. 256, 309. ISBN 9780306819865.
  2. ^ Tiegel, E. (December 12, 1970). "Talent in Action". Billboard. p. 28. Retrieved 2014-06-08.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Gerson, B. (June 24, 1971). "Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2014-06-08.
  4. ^ a b c d e White, T. (2009). Long Ago and Far Away. Omnibus Press. pp. 183–185. ISBN 9780857120069.
  5. ^ Neil, D. (June 18, 2004). "Songs of the Road a Disappearing Breed". Bangor Daily News. pp. S1–S2. Retrieved 2014-06-08.
  6. ^ Lichtenstein, G. (1979). "Desperado". In Marcus, G. Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. Da Capo Press. p. 91. ISBN 9780306806827.
  7. ^ "Billboard Album Reviews". Billboard. May 8, 1971. Retrieved 2014-06-08.
  8. ^ a b c Rudis, A. (May 8, 1971). "Taylor Keeps Tight Hold on Lullaby Championship". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. 55. Retrieved 2014-06-08.
  9. ^ "Top 60 Pop Spotlight: Alex Taylor-Highway Song". Billboard. March 27, 1971. p. 58. Retrieved 2014-06-08.
  10. ^ Glassenburg, B. (March 27, 1971). "What's Happening". Billboard. p. 30. Retrieved 2014-06-08.
  11. ^ Crouse, T. (February 18, 1971). "The First Family of the New Rock". Rolling Stone. p. 36.
  12. ^ Windham, B. (August 19, 2007). "Taylor Rocked Out, Sang the Blues". Tuscaloosa News. p. 6E. Retrieved 2014-06-08.
  13. ^ Kirby, F. (March 20, 1971). "Alex Taylor, Cathy Smith; Village Gaslight, N.Y." Billboard. p. 20. Retrieved 2014-06-08.