'Keep On Truckin,'' The Hippie Slogan R. Crumb Regrets Coining
The catchphrase "Keep On Truckin,'" ripped from an R. Crumb comic, is one of those hippie slogans you've seen everywhere. But despite its ever-presence, do we really know what it means? It seems to be a pretty simple motivational message akin to keep on keepin' on, or or get 'er done, or hang in there. Whatever you do, don't ask R. Crumb why it caught on -- he's both mystified, and irked by its popularity.
The phrase grew into a cultural phenomenon, without Crumb's consent, and what's more -- it really meant something quite different before Crumb got ahold of it.
Keep On Truckin’
Keep on truckin’ is one of those phrases that feels as if it birthed itself, with no creator, like Athena from the head of Zeus. The phrase was popularized by underground cartoonist R. Crumb in 1968 with a one-page comic. Since then the phrase has appeared on posters, in songs, on bumper stickers and t-shirts, but what does it mean?
Is “keep on truckin’” just a simple phrase that means hang in there or is there something more to it? After all, there are songs calling for audiences to keep truckin’, and there have been lawsuits over the phrase, so it must hold some weight, right?
And while truck drivers have embraced the phrase, it's important to point out that there isn't a truck in any of Crumb's pictures. Those who think the slogan is about actually driving a truck are probably taking it too literally.
While R. Crumb didn’t make up “keep on truckin’” he certainly popularized it. The line comes from “Truckin’ My Blues Away” a song by by Blind Boy Fuller from 1936. Crumb is an avid blues fan, so he more than likely heard the phrase in Fuller’s song and adapted it to his comic strip. The one-page strip, which appeared in the first issue of the famous underground comic book Zap Comix, shows a group of guys strutting across different landscapes while saying the phrase “keep on truckin’” - it was an immediate hit.
The Phrase Became A Hippy Slogan, And R Crumb Hated It
The comic touched a nerve with the optimistic hippie community of the late ‘60s who immediately adopted the slogan as their own. Crumb, who was never a fan of the hippies, almost instantly disowned the comic. He didn’t allow it to be licensed and he became incredibly litigious over its use in advertising and on various forms of merch.
Crumb was unhappy at becoming the spokesperson for a counterculture in which he wasn’t interested, and he came to see the comics as a curse. He said:
I became acutely self-conscious about what I was doing. Was I now a ‘spokesman’ for the hippies or what? I had no idea how to handle my new position in society… Take Keep on Truckin’ for example. Keep on Truckin is the curse of my life. This stupid little cartoon caught on hugely. There was a D.J. on the radio in the seventies who would yell out every ten minutes: ‘And don't forget to KEEP ON TR-R-RUCKIN’!’ Boy, was that obnoxious… I didn't want to turn into a greeting card artist for the counter-culture!
Crumb Parodied His Own Work In 1972
Either in a last-ditch attempt to get audiences to stop the keep on truckin’ madness or just to stick it to the masses, Crumb created a parody of his work in 1972 that offered up a collection of various phrases that were similar to “truckin” but obviously worse. The comic offered up phrases like “keep on chunkin,” “keep on boofin,” and “keep on rollin’ along.” It’s clear that the phrase was no longer a call to keep living life, but was now a thorn in Crumb’s side.
The strip ended with Crumb reminding his readers to continue buying merchandise featuring the phrases before listing off all the different types of items that featured his most notable work. Crumb’s jab at the merchandisers making money from his art did nothing to quell the tide of bumper stickers and coffee mugs.
Keep On Goin’ To Court
He sued numerous times over the image being used without his permission. According to director Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World), Crumb has been offered ludicrous amounts of money to license his truckin’ art, but that he’s not interested. Zwigoff told Roger Ebert:
He was offered, like, millions to license the 'Keep on Truckin' drawing for Toyota, but they only wanted that one drawing. He wanted to sell them a lot of other stuff. He tells them, 'How about I have this girl with her head cut off being stuffed into the trunk of the Toyota?' When they didn't go for that, he turned them down.
Still, the art was used anyway. It made its way to every piece of merchandise one can imagine t-shirts, posters, mudflaps, and more. In 1973 Crumb sued to put a stop to the illegal use of his work, but Judge Albert Charles Wollenberg ruled that because Crumb didn’t place a copyright notice on the page that the work was public domain. In 1977 the judge’s ruling was overturned and Crumb retained the copyright for the art. He now sells his own official version of the poster at crumbproducts.com.
What Does The Saying Have To Do With The Grateful Dead?
If you haven’t heard of “keep on truckin” from R. Crumb, then you’ve definitely heard the Grateful Dead song “Truckin,” which is about life on the road and contains an anecdote about a drug bust at their hotel in New Orleans in 1970. A touring band, particularly one with as much equipment as the Dead were known to haul, literally does get from one show to another by truck, which is a pretty literal reason for the title of their song.
Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir seemed to confirm that the title does come from Crumb's comic in a 2017 interview with the Wall Street Journal (summarized at Relix.com):
Mr. Natural had a bunch of sayings. One of them was ‘Keep on Truckin’,’ which was the spirit of our song.
Mr. Natural, a Crumb creation, is not actually the character who said "Keep On Truckin'" in the cartoon. Mr. Natural is a bald man with a long beard who is known for saying "Just passin' thru'" and "Use the right tool for the job." Details, details.
So what does Crumb think of the Dead? He doesn't get it. He said:
I've known lots of Deadheads, people who just follow the Grateful Dead and go to all their concerts, collect tapes and CDs of all their concerts, and trade with each other so they can listen to every concert, but I just don't get it. I talked to a couple of people who were Deadheads and they said when you're at a performance and you're high, like on LSD, it seems like the band is playing just for you… Recently, I just looked through a book called The Wit & Wisdom of Jerry Garcia. It's like a book of quotes from him. These quotes didn't make any sense to me. I was like, 'What? What is he saying? What?' They were completely non sequitur.
Hot Tuna and Eddie Kendricks Tapped Into The Energy Of Truckin’
The Dead weren’t the only band that tied themselves into the power of “keep on truckin.” In 1972, Hot Tuna released the album Burgers which featured the song “Keep On Truckin,” a pseudo-cover of the traditional piano track “Ja-Da” by Bob Carleton. Out of all the songs that mention truckin, this seems to be the one that’s most tied into Crumb’s work, although the band has never said as much.
A year later, former Temptations singer Eddie Kendricks released the song “Keep On Truckin’” on Tamla records. The song was a lengthy groove that uses the famous slogan as its refrain. The song went to number one on the pop and R&B charts, making it the first (arguably) disco song to hit number one. Kendricks never mentioned Crumb’s work when discussing the song, he merely said that he knew the song would be big because of the massive cross-country trucking industry. He said:
The old people used to truck when they were dancing. And I knew the trucking industry would embrace the record.
It's true: Fats Waller, who died in 1943, popularized a song called "Truckin,'" about "a dance to do / Up here in Harlem." And long-haul truckers were being romanticized as modern-day cowboys, soon to be featured in films like White Line Fever and Convoy.
What The Truck
Trucking can mean driving a truck, or it can mean dancing, or it can mean, particularly in far-out hippie slang, simply walking briskly -- as it does in the Dead's 1968 song "Cosmic Charlie," in which the title character is "trucking in style along the avenue." The odd thing is that in the original text Crumb was quoting, Blind Boy Fuller's "Truckin' My Blues Away," it meant none of the above.
In the tradition of hokum blues -- sexually suggestive or dirty songs -- "trucking" was simply rhyming slang for something you couldn't put on a record back then. Fuller's song cheers a girl who "keep on trucking mama, trucking my blues away." In one part he says to the listener "Catch you truckin' with her, I'm gonna sure shoot you down," and later he tells his girl she doesn't need to leave, and to "Wait a little while you might wanna truck some more."
"Keep on truckin'" was a line from a song about sex; R. Crumb plucked it out and illustrated it with some very un-sexy cartoon characters (all male) strutting on city streets; and the hippies, whom Crumb never cared for, seized upon the phrase as words to live by, suitable for the '60s equivalent of a motivational poster.
Blind Boy Fuller died in 1941, so we'll never know what he would have thought of shaggy '70s dudes telling each other to "keep on truckin.'"