Key To The Highway
“Key to the Highway” is usually credited to Charles “Chas” Segar and William “Big Bill” Broonzy. According to Broonzy, it is likely based on traditional songs: “Some of the verses he [Charlie Segar] was singing it in the South the same time as I sung it in the South. And practically all of blues is just a little change from the way that they was sung when I was a kid … You take one song and make fifty out of it … just change it a little bit.” Segar’s lyrics are “similar or in some cases identical” to those recorded by Broonzy and Jazz Gillum.
Musically, however, there are differences in the recorded versions. Charlie Segar’s original “Key to the Highway” was performed as a mid-tempo twelve-bar blues. When Jazz Gillum recorded it later that year with Broonzy on guitar, he used an eight-bar blues arrangement (May 9, 1940 Bluebird B 8529). In two different interviews, Gillum gave conflicting stories about who wrote the song: in one, he claimed sole authorship, in another he “specified Broonzy as the real author”.
A year later, Broonzy recorded “Key to the Highway” with Gillum on harmonica, Horace Malcolm on piano, Washboard Sam on washboard, and an unknown bassist, also using an eight-bar arrangement (May 2, 1941 OKeh 6242). According to Broonzy, the melody that he recorded was his and was based on childhood songs. These earliest recorded versions of “Key to the Highway” were released before record industry trade publications, such as Billboard magazine began tracking such releases. While it is difficult to gauge which version was the most popular, the eight-bar arrangement used by Gillum and Broonzy is the one found in subsequent recordings.
In 2010, Big Bill Broonzy’s version of “Key to the Highway” was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the “Classics of Blues Recordings” category; in 2012, it received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.