Essay: A Road-Trip Playlist Conjures Family Nostalgia

A good playlist can transport you back in time, spark reflections – and make a car trip way too short.

It was the last warm day of the year. My parents and I had just spent the afternoon with relatives, walking around an arboretum near Naperville, enjoying the weather. Now we were in the car, returning to my folks’ house in Racine.

It had been a full day, and the conversation began to die down as we reached the Illinois-Wisconsin border. My mom was driving, as she typically prefers to do. My dad was in the backseat, on the verge of one of his famous “s’naps” – my dad is known as a “super napper” because he can fall asleep in any position for two minutes, then wake up fully rejuvenated.

Traveling north on I-94, gazing at the pastel autumn sunset, I connected my phone to the car’s Bluetooth and scrolled through my iTunes library to find something to play. Most of the music on my recent playlists didn’t fit the mood, so I opened Apple Music and searched for songs that all three of us would enjoy. I started with “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, a family favorite. Seconds into the first verse, we were all singing along.

That song evokes memories of road trips to my uncles’ houses, where we’d play table tennis, hike through parks and visit the college campuses where they worked. Back then, in the ’80s, my parents and their siblings were still new to this country, having recently immigrated from India. They were in their 20s and I was a little toddler, an only child. I think their new life in the United States must have been quite a culture shock, and at times very lonely. Fortunately, many of my uncles and aunts lived in the Midwest, so we were able to visit them often. We made a lot of great memories, and listening to music and singing along together was a big part of that.

“Fast Car” was the first song on a mixtape that my mom’s older brother made for us early on. We listened to that tape whenever we were in the car back then. The songs covered a wide range, from Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” to Iron Butterfly’s “Inna Gadda Da Vida” to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong’s “Dancing Cheek to Cheek.” That tape was our family’s soundtrack.

My next selection was “Tin Man” by America, then “Stuck With You” by Huey Lewis and the News. As the car’s DJ, I fueled the nostalgic feelings with more songs from that old mixtape, plus some that my dad used to sing in the shower and at family get-togethers: Harry Belafonte, Kishore Kumar, the Eagles. I added a few songs I used to play on the piano and guitar during my teenage angst years — Ben Folds Five’s “Evaporated” and Dave Matthews Band’s “#41.” Those took me back to playing my first acoustic shows at Barnes & Noble and Cyber-Grounds Cafe, hanging out with my best friends in high school, and dealing with acne.

As we took Exit 329, Hwy K, I glanced at my mom, who was looking out at the road with a subtle smile and a translucent glaze swelling over her eyes. “I wish this car ride didn’t have to end,” she said. My dad and I knew exactly what she was feeling: She was remembering my uncle’s living room and me as a little kid, those old road trips, me playing piano and singing in the evenings after dinner. She was remembering her younger self, and I’m sure when she thinks of those old times she is amazed by how far she’s come as a person and how far we’ve come as a family.

In the chorus of “Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman sings “I had a feeling that I belong, I had a feeling I could be someone.” Those sentiments of connection and hope were reawakened that day in the car on the way from Naperville to Racine. The music transported us to an earlier time, and as we listened and sang together, a link in the family chain was added, a new memory and a feeling that is sure to stay with us for years to come. ◆

‘The Magic of Music’ appears in the February 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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