Key to the Highway


Ironically, Big Bill Broonzy always carried small bills to stuff in G-strings

As I have said many times before, I have a practice regimen that entails practicing certain keys on certain days of the week. I practice 2 keys per day, but on the Sabbath Day, I take a break, and if I practice, it is just playing tunes or whatever without any settled routine. On Monday, it is E & Bb. On Tuesday, A & Eb. There is a pattern to it — a method to my madness, if you will — that should be apparent to the casual observer. If you can’t see it, I’m not going to belabor the point. I don’t care to delve any deeper, at least not for the L7 — the uninitiated square. But if you were like, ‘of course, and then on Wednesday he would practice D & Ab,’ read on.

So, if this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium. I mean, it must be A & Eb. So, after playing the scales in 5 positions up the neck, I play the blues in those keys, also in 5 positions up the neck. As I play the chords I also throw in some licks using the blues scale. For blues in A you use the C pentatonic, and for blues in Eb, you use F# pentatonic. This is on the 12 bar blues progression, but since there is a classic 8 bar blues that is typically in the key of A, and since it is appropriately titled “Key to the Highway,” I will play this song as part of my practice on Tuesday.

“Key to the Highway” was first recorded as a 12 bar blues in Chicago on February 23rd, 1940 by Charlie Segar. It was released later that year on the Vocalion label. Jazz Gillum and Big Bill Broonzy recorded it in 1940 and 1941, as an 8 bar blues, with the 1941 version, released under Big Bill Broonzy as singer, having the chord progression and 8 bar form that became the standard format for that tune in later versions. Big Bill Broonzy probably had the most input on the song writing, though even he admits that in those days you’d take a song and change it a little bit and come up with 50 versions, 50 songs based on the original song, that no one knew who had written.

Harmonica player Little Walter did an electric Chicago blues version in 1958 that was a hit on the R&B charts, and Eric Clapton recorded it several times, with the best known version being the one on the Derek and the Dominos’ 1970 landmark album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. It sounds as if Eric and Duane were jamming and the producer said, ‘get this on tape,’ as it fades in without an introduction. That is exactly what did happen. Sam Samudio, better known as “Sam the Sham”, was singing it in the next-door studio, so Eric and Duane started playing it spontaneously. Tom Dowd, the producer, heard it, and told the engineers to “hit the goddamn machine!” It is a perfect setting for the song because Eric and Duane are in such sync that they can trade solos endlessly, as if they have been jamming since the beginning of time and will go on and on jamming forever.

Clapton would go on to perform it many times, while sadly Duane Allman would crash his Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle and die in Macon, Georgia on October 29, 1971. The song was played at Duane’s funeral in Macon, Georgia that year.

For me, the title is perfect, since I practice and try to learn stuff in all 12 keys, but it also captures the wanderlust of the itinerant musician who wants to set out for new territory when his woman breaks it off:

I got the key to the highway,
Billed out and bound to go.
I’m gonna leave here running
Walking is most too slow.

And the final verse contains a perfect rebuke for that ungrateful, unfaithful woman who had the temerity to turn down a perfectly good man who only wanted to share his music with the world:

I’m going back to the border
Woman, where I’m better known.
You know you haven’t done nothing,
Drove a good man away from home.

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