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Trucking in Popular Culture: 1939 – 1980

Between movies and music, trucking has been a part of pop culture for over 70 years. Trucking references on the silver screen or radio speaker goes all the way back to the 1950s.

Over this time, trucking has been portrayed in a myriad of ways, from the freedom loving hero to the troubled serial killer. The 1970s, for instance, represented the peak of trucker references in modern culture. Truck drivers were portrayed as modern day cowboys, outlaw heroes, and rebels of the road.

In this new three part series, we’re going to take a look at each of the three time periods in which trucking made a shift in popular culture. First up is the period from 1939 – 1980.

Trucking in Early Pop Culture

The first reference to trucking in pop culture came in 1939, and it was in music, not film. In 1939 Cliff Bruner and His Boys recorded “Truck Driver’s Blues,” which was a song produced explicitly for roadside café owners to play on their jukeboxes when truckers stopped by.

Shortly thereafter, in 1940, came the iconic They Drive by Night, which co-starred none other than Humphrey Bogart himself. The film was based on an independent truck driver who was struggling to make it work during the Great Depression. Then in 1941 came The Gang’s All Here, a story about a trucking company battling back a group of thieves and saboteurs.

The trucking movies of this era portrayed truck drivers as a kind of new American pioneer. These were the people riding out into wild to make sure the wheels of commerce kept spinning.

By the 1950s, truckers were being portrayed as the “Knights of the Road.” These were the men and women who were there to help whenever a traveler became stranded on the road.  This was also the time when truckers were portrayed as the antithesis of your typical boring office job. They were viewed as independent and nomadic, free to live life their way.

In the 1960’s, country western singer Dave Dudley released “Six Days on the Road,” a song that compellingly highlighted both the excitement and the boredom that sometimes comes from long stints behind the wheel. Out of all genres, country music contains the highest number of work songs related to trucking.

In the 1970s, trucking in pop culture really hit its stride. This was the heyday of truck driving and the popularity of the profession was bleeding into how it was portrayed on the big screen. This was also the decade when the idea of the “urban cowboy” became a thing, which dovetailed nicely with the modern wanderer and nomadic cowboy image that trucking had at the time.

One of the biggest directors of our day got in on the trucking action in 1971, when Steven Spielberg directed Duel. In 1975 came White Line Fever, which told the story of a Vietnam War veteran who took over his father’s trucking business upon returning home. His battle against corrupt shippers wanting him to carry illegal contraband formed the backdrop of that film.

In 1976 the number one song on the Billboard chart was “Convoy,” a song about truck drivers avoiding speed traps and toll booths. A 1978 movie of the same name was inspired by the song and featured Kris Kristofferson famously screaming “Piss on your law!”

The third highest grossing release of 1977 was Smokey and the Bandit, starring Burt Reynolds. Not to be left out of the action was Chuck Norris, who played a hard charging hero in 1977s Breaker! Breaker! action film. Who could forget the tagline “…he’s got a CB radio and a hundred friends who might get mad!”

The decades between 1940 and 1980 saw truckers dominating pop culture in all the best ways, portrayed as heroes, knights of the road, and people you look up to. Would that change in the coming years? Find out next week in part two of this three-part series, which will examine the decades between 1980 and 2000.

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