Travelling with a Beat: An exploration into the use of music to express travel in On the Road and Latcho Drom

Louis Kirby

The 'universal language' of music as a narrative tool is examined through analysis of two works - book and film - and their use of music as structure and symbol as well as an evocation of environment. The essay recognises music's relationship with identity and culture as well as its bridging between language and tacit communication.


To the contrast of the mutually unintelligible languages of the world, Longfellow describes music as ‘the universal language of mankind’ (Longfellow 1835, p202).

For noises to stimulate our sensory receptor of sound our eardrum receives changes in air pressure and the frequencies of those changes are sent to the brain, where sense is made of it. If we hear a scream, anywhere in the world, we interpret the noise as the sound of another person’s pain, surprise or distress because we have previous experience and knowledge to relate to this. This suggests that music can also convey information. With changes in rhythm, style, mood and pace, music can be used to ‘express a state of meaning for which there exists no adequate word in any language’. (Coupland, 1957 p10)

In literature and film, concepts and communication are not necessarily conveyed through a common spoken language. In Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ (1957) and Tony Gatlif’s Latcho Drom (1993), music is used as a vehicle for meaning that cannot be explained in words.

Although they take different textual forms, both use music in the context of travel into new horizons and the exploration of new cultures. Culture, although a broad term to define, can be described as a ‘set of behavioural practices and shared knowledge and values of a social group’ (Williams, 1985 p87-93). On an individual level, our own culture shapes the way in which we perceive the world around us. New concepts can only be understood when related to patterns and understandings that already exist through our own knowledge and experience from our own culture. The meeting of two cultures means new meaning and connotations are taken from each other.

When concepts exceed the communicative boundaries of spoken language, music is used to represent meaning or identity. In the French-made film Latcho Drom, writer Tony Gatlif takes the viewer on a musical journey with a group of Romany gypsies, travelling from Northern India, through North Africa and Eastern Europe to Spain. The plot follows the gypsies country by country, song by song. Throughout On the Road, author Jack Kerouac uses the music that his character, Sal Paradise experiences on his travels as a metaphorical vehicle to represent his journey, his narrative and his relationship with his road companion Dean Moriaty.

The cultures of the two travellers; white, French-Canadian, male in Post war America, and a group of nomadic Romany gypsies are very different.

 At the time of On the Road, popular culture in America was changing and with that change came rebellious sub-cultures. ‘On the Road is an expression of experience of a literary movement known as the Beat generation’ (Creswell, 1993 p253). This came from the aftermath of the depression and end of the Second World War in the 30’s and 40’s where the ‘American Dream’ of ‘family/small town/home ownership’ (p257) became the dominant culture in America. The narrator of On the Road, Sal Paradise, rebelled against the dominant culture in favour for the life of the nomadic ‘hobos’ that he admired, taking to the road in search of ‘IT’.

The culture of the Romany gypsies is very different from any other. Due to their nomadic nature, their culture is not tied to a specific location or nation. Romanys live across three continents, but hold similar cultural values wherever they reside. ‘Gypsies are disparate in so many ways, so widely separated from one another by distance and differing customs’ (Liegeois, 2005 p17). The incongruous effects on the gypsy culture from the dominant cultures they travel through creates a ‘mosaic’ (p49) of identity held by gypsies across the globe.

In Latcho Drom, Gatlif uses music as the cultural output of encountered societies on the group’s travel. The music becomes a metaphor for the identity of the nomadic Romany people. Each country they visit from Rajasthan, their point of origin, they bring with them musical influences from the previous. The only constant in their culture is the continuous journey to a new place. This constant is represented in the film through the use of repetition of symbolic images such as migrating birds, wheels and roads or railways.

The common ground for the film and Gatlif’s technique in using the universal language of music to tell the story is that the countries and communities visited are reflected by their music. The viewer is not told which countries they have entered, but instead is asked to build upon existing knowledge of music and culture. The representation in the music is supported by images of the landscape, architecture and people. In the early scenes in Rajasthan, India, we see and hear performances by different musical Hindu practices native to the country and the culture. For example in the last performance scene in India before the journey to Egypt, we see the nomadic ironsmiths ‘Gadulia Lohars’ (India Profile (nd) [online]). Without the use of narration or dialogue, we see images of them crafting iron tools beside their wooden carts, before their colourful performance lead by lute-shaped string instruments, drums and Indian sounding singing. When they reach Egypt, the first song continues to use a similar Indian energy.

Kerouac also uses music to represent location in On the Road. After a Slim Gaillard concert in San Francisco, Sal uses the music to sum up the city. ‘I never saw such crazy musicians. Everybody in Frisco blew. It was the end of the continent; they didn’t give a damn.’ (Kerouac, 1957 p.160-161). This links Sal’s experience of the Jazz heard in San Francisco, to the city itself to build his personal perception of it in the same way that Latcho Drom uses the differing gypsy sounds of each country to locate their whereabouts.

The music in Latcho Drom represents the relationship between gypsies and the country that they reside in. The Romany music is influenced by the country’s music and culture, but also the country’s music is influenced by its gypsies. This is clearly evident upon the arrival of two native farmers to the Romany camp in France. The musical culture of France is likely to be more commonly recognised by a western viewer than many of the other countries. The well known tropes of French music are present in the non-diegetic music in this scene such as accordion and violin. When the Romany gypsies play round a table later on in France, we hear a fusion of the Romany and French influence with the ‘gypsy jazz’ style famed by legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt who spent his youth as a Romany gypsy (Aarons (nd) [online]).

Contrastingly, the music that forms the structure of On the Road is a single genre, Jazz. Kerouac incorporates Jazz in On the Road, not just through the use of anecdotes of gigs that Sal and Dean attended, but the whole structure, meaning and even the way it is written. Used as a metaphor for the experience and journey that Sal was undertaking, the nature of Jazz music is that of exploration rather than recital.

The basis of Jazz music is built on the repetition of chord changes which are picked apart, rebuilt and explored through improvisation. To Kerouac, Jazz is more than a musical technique and speaks words of individuality and of identity and culture. It ‘represents a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition’ (Ellison, 1967 p234). In the same way that the music in Latcho Drom represents the changing culture of gypsy travel, Jazz represents the spontaneity of Sal’s travel across America, both texts using the music as ‘a coded expression of social aims and values of the people to whom it appeals’ (Frith, 1996 p62).

Jazz improvisation takes the regular repetition of chord changes from which a musician takes a circular extemporaneous path rather than a linear one, removing itself from regularity, in order to try new parts, mix and change old and new, only to loop back into the regularity. At the time of the Beat generation, ‘jazz talk was a potent force, a magical language for the new poets.’ (Wallenstein, 1980 p122). Using jazz rhythm, style and flow, ‘On the road takes jazz music as its central structural metaphor and Kerouac's writing techniques move the reader across the pages at a fast pace as the central characters race across the land’ (Creswell, 1993 p256). Kerouac is said to be influenced by modernist writers such as James Joyce, Earnest Hemmingway and followed them in experimental writing style, leaving linear structures of novels much in the same way that the Jazz that Sal and Dean enjoy, escapes the linear structure of popular music.

‘I was crisscrossing the old map again, same place Marylou and I held hands on a snowy morning in 1949’ (Kerouac, 1957 p246). Sal’s conception of travel and time works the same way as the Jazz solos that he admires; revisiting past locations, adding new and editing old meaning, lopping back into one; understanding experiences simultaneously rather than chronologically in order to gain true understanding of a place or experience. This continuous looping narrative is evident in Kerouac’s experimental writing technique, through which he infamously wrote the original scroll of On the Road, non-stop on a 120 foot roll of paper as he was ‘convinced that his verbal flow was hampered when he had to change paper at the end of a page’ (Charters, 1991 p.xix). This impression of poetic continuity throughout the text is also evident in Latcho Drom. Gatlif seamlessly ties scenes and countries with subtle transitions, using the symbolism of the moving road to signify travel.

 Kerouac uses the metaphor of Jazz as mobility and travel throughout On the Road. This acts as a two-way metaphor, using Jazz to describe travel as well as travel to describe Jazz. Sal describes the Jazz and it’s musicians in relation to travel and movement. George Shearing’s piano chords are said to have ‘rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to ‘Go!’ (Kerouac, 1957 p116) and Slim Gaillard is described as a car, ‘When he gets warmed up he takes off his shirt and undershirt and really goes’ (p159) and his music is described as ‘sounds of traffic come in the open door’ (p159). The idea of the music as the progressive motion of Sal’s journey is encapsulated while watching Slim Gaillard in San Francisco, where ‘He tried everything, up, down, sideways, upside down, horizontal, thirty degrees, forty degrees’ (p180). This represents Sal’s journey across America, back and forth, east to west, again and again. On their way to New Orleans, Dean turns up the Jazz that has come on the radio and tells Sal to ‘listen to him tell the story and put down true relaxation and knowledge’(p121), using the music to represent their own journey motifs. In reversal of this metaphor, Sal also describes the process of motion and travel in a similar way to the way music moves. ‘We all jumped to the music and agreed. The purity of the road. The white line in the middle of the highway unrolled and hugged our left front tire as if glued to our groove’ (p121), directly linking to flow of Jazz to their movement on the road. He symbolises their collective search for ‘IT’ as the ‘groove’ of a Jazz musician.

The key to the role of music in travel writing is the ubiquity of it in that music can communicate without explanation. Not only meaning that it can be used as a common language across nations, as it is represented in Latcho Drom, but also that it explain notions that are above the boundaries of words and speech.

An example of the use of music as a language bridge is present in Latcho Drom. The Romany group settle by a train station platform, on which a non-gypsy mother and son sit. The boy’s mother is weeping and to raise her spirits the child runs to the gypsies and offers them money to play a song. This takes the view of the Romany people as the ‘other’ in someone else’s land. The symbolism of a child offering them money is of pity, as if the Romanys are beggars and chose not to be in their situation. But of course, this is their life and they mean to be by a railway track and they laugh off his offer. But they do play the boy a song, to which he dances and laughs. Although they have no mutual language, the gypsies communicate kindness and entertainment to the mother. The music causes happiness, represented in the mothers smile and speaks louder than words to enlighten the woman’s mood.

Throughout On the Road, much of Sal and Dean’s quest is to search for what they describe as ‘IT’. There is no definition given to what ‘IT’ is they are looking for, perhaps this is where a concept exceeds the boundaries of spoken communication, so Kerouac encapsulates their search for ‘IT’ in Jazz music. Much of their travel and their search for ‘IT’ is made up of ‘The repeated exhilaration of arrival in new cities and the subsequent sadness and disappointment’ (Creswell, 1993 p257) of leaving the city, without having found what they were looking for. This pattern of joy then distain is represented also in the Jazz musicians. Sal describes a performance by a Jazz pianist, George Shearing as playing ‘amazing chords that mounted higher and higher’ (Kerouac, 1957 p219), before he leaves the stage after an hour and goes ‘back to his dark corner, old God Shearing, and the boys said, “there ain’t nothing left after that” (p220). When at an early Shearing concert, Sal again describes the sadness of departure as the end of the music, ‘God was gone; it was the silence of his departure. It was a rainy night. It was the myth of the rainy night’ (p116). The relationship between music and travel is represented by using the end of a song ‘silence’ as the end of a stay in a city ‘departure’. This feeling is symbolised as a ‘rainy night’, describing the ‘myth’ of rain, relating the physical conditions of a location (the weather) to the feeling of emptiness and sadness. Their search for ‘IT’ is represented by the nature of the Jazz musicians, ‘they found it, they lost, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed, they moaned’ (Kerouac, 1957 p220), describing the struggle of searching for ‘IT’ on the road, as the struggle of searching for ‘IT’ in the improvisational nature of Jazz.

In Latcho Drom, Gatlif uses music as the conveyor of geographical, historical and political information. Not only do the common tropes of a culture’s music reveal the geographic location of the Romany travellers, but the journey is also used to symbolise the spread of the Romany people through history. The story starts in Rajasthan, the place of historical origin of the Romany gypsies in the 11th century, and then moves in a western direction as far as Spain, where they settled in the 15th century. The lyrics of songs are also used on the journey to reveal the Romany history of their location. For example an elderly woman, with a number tattooed on her arm, sings a mournful song about Auschwitz, with images of barbed wire and lonely footprints in the snow reinforce the message.

Kerouac uses the change in the status of Jazz as a metaphor for the end of the dream, the journey and Sal and Dean’s friendship. In the last part of the book, Sal is in the backseat of a Limousine, on his way to a high brow Ellington gig at the Metropolitan Opera House with his new wife Laura. This is a farfetched change from the dingy jazz clubs Dean and Sal would attend, signifying a change in the status of jazz from an exciting rebellion against the linear patterns of modern music, to a high cultured event. Dean, who is not attending the stylishly attired event is denied a lift in the Limousine by Sal’s friend Remi and Sal is forced to leave Dean on the roadside. The end of the exciting, underground hype of Jazz; the feeling which may be what is referred to by Dean and Sal as ‘IT’ is lost as ‘The institutionalization of jazz at the conclusion of On the Road mirrors Sal’s commitment to Laura and to a more conventional life’ (Malcolm, 1999 p.104).

For travel literature, a story of a journey to new cultures and horizons, music is used as a natural representation of narrative. Throughout Latcho Drom, the Romany people play music from each culture they are in, but in each country and in each song, the Romany values remain the same, just as the Romany sounds lies constant in the music. Kerouac uses Jazz and the Beat generation as a metaphor for Sal Paradise’s journey across America, not because the Jazz represented the states and cities he visited, but because wherever he was, the experimental exploration of Jazz remained a constant within Sal’s travelling spirit. Music in travel writing is not only used to reveal practices of a society or a location, but to represent the practices of the traveller themselves.


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Ellison, R. (1967). The Charlie Christian Story. Shadow and Act. 233-240.

Frith, S. (1996) Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. By Simon Frith. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press, and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Longfellow, H.W (1835). Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, New York : Harper & Brothers

Malcolm, D. (1999). "Jazz America": Jazz and African American Culture in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road".Contemporary Literature. 40 (1), 85-110.

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Williams, R (1985). Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. 2nd ed. London: Fontana Paperbacks. 87 - 93.


Latcho Drom (1993) Directed by Tony Gatlif, France: Michele Ray-Gavras


Aarons, J (nd) Django Reinhardt. Available: Accessed 30 May 2010]

India Profile (nd) Gadulia Lohars, nomadic nuances. Available: [Accessed 30 May 2010]



Louis Kirby


brightONLINE student literary journal

06 Oct 2011