Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"The Ballad of Thunder Road" - Robert Mitchum, 1957 (folk pop)

Let me tell the story, I can tell it all
About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol
His daddy made the whiskey, son, he drove the load
When his engine roared, they called the highway Thunder Road.

Sometimes into Ashville, sometimes Memphis town
The revenoors chased him but they couldn’t run him down
Each time they thought they had him, his engine would explode
He`d go by like they were standin’ still on Thunder Road.

And there was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his load
There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the Devil’s thirst
The law they swore they`d get him, but the Devil got him first.

On the first of April, nineteen fifty-four
A Federal man sent word he’d better make his run no more
He said two hundred agents were coverin’ the state
Whichever road he tried to take, they’d get him sure as fate.

Son, his Daddy told him, make this run your last
The tank is filled with hundred-proof, you’re all tuned up and gassed
Now, don’t take any chances, if you can’t get through
I’d rather have you back again than all that mountain dew.

Roarin’ out of Harlan, revvin’ up his mill
He shot the gap at Cumberland, and screamed by Maynordsville
With T-men on his taillights, roadblocks up ahead
The mountain boy took roads that even Angels feared to tred.

Blazing right through Knoxville, out on Kingston Pike,
Then right outside of Bearden, they made the fatal strike.
He left the road at 90; that’s all there is to say.
The devil got the moonshine and the mountain boy that day.

Last month, we catapulted a train off the side of a mountain (well, sort of). For this month's installment of vehicular tragedy, we're sending a car off a mountain cliff at 90 mph.

"The Ballad of Thunder Road", recorded by Robert Mitchum, is actually the theme song for the 1957 film, Thunder Road, which also starred Mitchum. In the movie, Robert Mitchum played a bootlegger in the 1950s named Lucas Doolin who ran moonshine along the local roads at excessive speeds to escape the revenuers. I can hear you thinking, "But I thought this blog was about preservation of fact, not fiction. There are a million fiction songs out there..." and in that you would be correct. But I bet you didn't know that the movie AND the song were inspired by an actual event. Yep, Thunder Road was loosely based on an incident in which a driver was transporting his contraband and was said to have fatally crashed on Kingston Pike in Knoxville, Tennessee, somewhere between Bearden Hill and Morrell Road. Metro Pulse writer Jack Renfro stated that the incident occurred in 1952 and was witnessed by novelist and playwright James Agee, who passed the story on to Mitchum.

The movie, itself, isn't all that far-fetched as far as runnin' 'shine was concerned. Moonshine is any distilled spirit made in an unlicensed still. Yeast ferments a sugar source to produce ethanol, then the alcohol is extracted through distillation using a still. So, what you're putting in your flex-fuel Chevy Tahoe, well, them thar corn squeezin's is the 'zact same stuff...ethanol. Fifty years ago, it was illegal. Now you can buy it for $2.83/gallon at the fuel stop, but I wouldn't recommend drinking it...not then, and not now, either.

While it is true that the government outlawed moonshining because they didn't make any money off of the operation, if they couldn't tax it, it meant that they also couldn't regulate its production. And if there is one thing that the government actually does a pretty good job of, for the most part, it's food and drug regulation. Moonshine was made from all sorts of questionable substances. Any sugar source was used, including fruit or even tree bark (for flavor). Bootleggers' whiskey usually came out of the still at 100 proof. The more pure the alcohol, the greater the risk for alcohol poisoning. Clandestine labs were set up out in the woods where there was no quality control. Contaminants from a poorly run/made still or bad raw materials often led to fatal conditions, which includes lead poisoning from solder joints and methanol poisoning if too much cellulose got into the mixture. The only purity test for the backwoods bootlegger was to pour some of the 'shine in a spoon and light it on fire. If it burned blue, then they said it was OK (it wasn't very accurate, obviously). Moonshine is, however, not illegal if one concedes for the government to collect its share and regulate the production. It's not illegal to make it for's illegal to sell it to others.

Moonshining was a highly profitable business, just as the alcohol industry is today. For mountain people, it was often their only source of income, especially during times of war, depression, or whenever the already tough mountain economy got tougher. Moonshining was actually a family business that was often passed down from one generation to the next. Naturally, the 'shiners (who didn't pay the tax) took it as an offense that the government should intervene on the family business. So, if you're going to make booz and sell it, but not pay the government, then you're going to need someone to transport it...someone who can drive good and fast to outrun the cops (because if the cops didn't know about your operation, your squeezin's probably ain't that great). You need a bootlegger.

In the movie, Mitchum drove a hot-rodded '51 Ford 2-door sedan with a custom tank in the back to hide the moonshine. Bootlegger tricks are as old as the hills those cars and trucks drove on. It wasn't enough just to drive a fast car; you had to drive something that could adequately hide your product. There were false bottoms, false fender wells, hidden compartments, and countless other schemes of false this-or-that to hide the whiskey in case you did get caught. But being caught meant going to jail. Without a bootlegger, you can't get your product to your customers (oh yeah, and the law has probably found your still and dismantled it by now, too). No 'shine, no money.

The bootleggers would do anything and everything they could to make sure that the whiskey made it to the hands of whoever was paying for it. Often, the entire welfare of the family depended on it. To sustain the production, bootleggers would sometimes take incredible risks such driving at top speeds (during times before the DOT knew things about road safety and crash science) and taking the back roads through hazardous terrain that the vehicle wasn't built for. The possibilities for accidents were the same then as they are today, if not greater. Vehicles weren't equipped with modern safety devices such as an anti-lock braking system, traction control, or airbags, which would have been extremely useful for the man who drove off the side of the mountain.

Moonshiners made their place in American history, but in such a way that they became heroes instead of villains. The bootleggers' hot rod vehicles became a hobby for motorists all over the country, not to mention that their heinous driving gave birth to one of the greatest American sports. Since the bootleggers had to outrun the authorities, they had to upgrade their vehicles. They eventually started getting together and making runs with fellow 'shine runners. They soon began to challenge each other, which ultimately lead to nationally organized stock car races, and in 1948 NASCAR was born.

"The Ballad of Thunder Road" - Robert Mitchum, 1957

And as a special treat, this posting comes with not just one video, but TWO. The film Thunder Road became a cult classic. It played in the drive in movie theaters even into the 1980's where one young man was inspired by the film's theather poster alone and wrote his own song, "Thunder Road". That man is none other than The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.

"Thunder Road" - Bruce Springsteen, 1976

~information squeezed from here and there on a super-fast internet connection.

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