Here’s a proposition: we should pay less attention to Elvis Presley (#11), and give more credit to Chuck Berry (#21), when we talk about the creation of rock and roll music. They were in one sense mirror images of each other. Starting on opposite sides, each bridged the racial divide of post-war popular music by blending white and black musical styles. But Elvis was neither a songwriter nor an instrumentalist. He contributed a vocal style and, more importantly, an attitude, but Berry’s contributions were more tangible and more lastingly listenable.
Berry’s music defined rock and roll as we now know it, but he began as more of a blues musician, and he always maintained a complex relation to the blues. He recorded for Chess Records in Chicago, the premiere blues label in post-war America, where Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, and numerous others recorded. Not surprisingly, then, the song with which he first approached Chess was a straightforward, slow, urban blues number entitled “Wee Wee Hours.” The Chess brothers were more interested, however, in the other song he brought along, an early version of “Maybellene,” then called “Ida May.” Berry later described it as his “effort to sing country-western,” and the effort was successful enough that (as with Elvis’s earliest recordings) some listeners were mistaken as to the singer’s race.
So “Maybellene” became the A-side, “Wee Wee Hours” the B-side, and the single was a huge crossover hit. The future course of Berry’s career was in that moment determined: he would produce music that was aimed primarily at a white teenage audience. “Maybellene”’s opening couplet also concisely marked out the terrain that so many of his subsequent songs would cover: “As I was motorvatin’ over the hill / I saw Maybellene in a coupe de ville.” This conjunction of cars and women recurs throughout Berry’s oeuvre. His song “Come On” begins, “Everything is wrong since me and my baby parted / All day long I’m walkin’ ’cause I couldn't get my car started.” In “No Particular Place to Go” he is unable to unfasten his girlfriend’s seatbelt: “All the way home I held a grudge / For the safety belt that wouldn’t budge.” The sexist potential of this trope is most fully realized in the song “I Want to Be Your Driver,” the last cut on The Great Twenty-Eight, in which he declares, rather starkly, “I want to be your driver / I would love to ride you.”
When he writes about women independent of cars, things are a little less crass. He writes more often, and more perceptively, about girls than about women, with a particular interest in girls who are on the verge of becoming women. “Sweet Little Sixteen” is the most famous of these songs, an extended portrait of a teenage pop-music fan who’s “got the grown-up blues”:
Tight dresses and lipstick,
She’s sportin’ high-heel shoes.
Oh, but tomorrow morning
She’ll have to change her trend,
And be sweet sixteen,
And back in class again.
In this song–and in the follow-up, “Sweet Little Rock and Roller,” in which the girl is only nine–the singer views the girl from a distance. It is a gently satiric, detached, affectionate portrait of a music fan. In “Little Queenie,” however, the singer is quite explicitly trying to “make it” with a girl who is below the age of consent. Here, as in many of Berry’s songs, he is presumably writing and singing within the persona of a male teenager. Songs such as “Almost Grown,” “Oh Baby Doll,” and “School Days” all view high school life through an adolescent perspective, and that seems to be the goal here as well. “While writing [Little Queenie],” Berry recalls in his 1987 autobiography, “I relived the feelings of the character presented.” Still, the spoken internal monologues sound more like those of a calculating adult, and when the Rolling Stones recorded the song, ten years later, they brought to the fore the leering malevolence that is latent in Berry’s song.
In the decade between these two recordings of “Little Queenie,” Berry spent two years in prison for violating the Mann Act, that is, for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. Humbert Humbert declares in Nabokov’s Lolita, “I deplore the Mann Act as lending itself to a dreadful pun,” and while Humbert also despises American popular music, he might have sympathized with the protagonist of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.” This song, written as one side of a conversation with a long-distance operator, depicts the singer’s efforts trying to “get in touch with my Marie” who has called him from Memphis. He reveals that he “miss[es] her and all the fun we had” and that “we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree / And tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee.” The twist that the song reveals at the end of the final verse is that “Marie is only six years old,” at which point we adjust our sense of the story: Marie must be his daughter, not his lover. But the song remains open to a Lolita-esque reading in which the young girl’s mother has taken steps to protect her daughter from a predatory stepfather. Part of the interest, and part of the creepiness of Berry’s lyrics, is the extent to which they court such misunderstandings.
As we saw in “Little Queenie,” there is frequently a tension in Berry’s songs, a tension between his attempt to adopt a fictional teenage persona and his eagerness to assert his real adult self. Berry repeatedly draws attention to himself as the creator of his songs by alluding to his earlier songs. Most famously, he does this with the well-known guitar lick that opens so many of his songs. The source of that lick is Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” (1946), and Berry uses it to open at least seven different songs between 1956 and 1965. This lick becomes a recurring musical motif, always pointing back to earlier recordings. Berry’s self-referentiality is lyrical as well as musical. He quotes “Maybellene” in the lyrics of two songs he recorded later that year. He wrote songs that continued the sagas of “Memphis” and “Johnny B. Goode,” and he wrote songs that were musical rehashes of “Maybellene” and “School Days.” He created fictional alter-egos such as “Johnny B. Goode,” and he wrote overtly autobiographical songs such as “Go, Go, Go,” “Bio,” and “Oh Yeah” (the last of these is a pastiche of song titles: “In the Wee Wee Hours / I used to play ‘Maybellene’”). All this self-quotation shows Berry perhaps too willing to recycle his early success, but it also marks him as an artist who is not willing to disappear behind his songs. Berry often peeks out from behind the persona in which he wrote, and his songs insistently remind us that they are part of a constellation of songs written by Chuck Berry. (When the young Bruce Springsteen played backup for Berry at a concert in 1973, he asked Chuck what would be on the set list. The reply was, “We’re going to do some Chuck Berry songs.”)
Berry’s songs also remind us of their debt to the blues. Musically, he generally writes within the three-chord limits observed by blues and R&B music. Most of his songs have the simple structure of verse/chorus–or even verse without chorus–which is characteristic of the blues. He almost never writes a bridge–that is, a “C” section that varies the alternation of “A” (verse) and “B” (chorus)–such as one finds in Tin Pan Alley pop songs. Lyrically too, even as Berry courted a teen market with tales of adolescent travails, echoes of the blues can be heard. Consider, for example, the opening of “Thirty Days,” in which the singer, in a classic blues scenario, consults a gypsy woman about his love troubles. Berry refuses to play it straight, however, first calling the gypsy woman on the telephone rather than going to see her, as other bluesmen do, and then comically extending the traditional folk magic of the “hoodoo” into a “worldwide hoodoo,” and rhyming it with “suit you,” for good measure. Or consider another blues-inflected moment, this one the opening of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” Here Berry reworks a trope familiar from blues songs, in which the judge’s wife intervenes on behalf of an extraordinarily handsome criminal. In Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man,” as sung by Berry’s label-mate Howlin’ Wolf, we get simply “Accused him for murder, first degree / Judge wife cried, let the man go free.” Berry’s version of the trope is more ornate and elaborate, with the judge’s wife, for some reason, phoning the district attorney rather than appealing to her own husband. Furthermore, instead of pathetically crying “let the man go free,” she comically threatens the D.A.: “You want your job, you better free that brown-eyed man.” Berry embroiders the stark, spare poetry of the blues with the more verbose language and mundane details of 1950s American life.
A fair amount has been written about the content of Berry’s songs, particularly those which seem to touch, however obliquely, on the subject of race. Is the phrase “little country boy” in “Johnny B. Goode” code for little colored boy? Is the hero of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” more accurately a brown-skinned handsome man? Is it true, as Richard Meltzer famously argued in 1970, that “Berry’s ‘Rock and Roll Music’ predicted in 1957 the later outbreak of African nationalism” in the lines “It’s way too early for the Congo / So keep a-rocking that piano?” These questions are interesting, and they appeal because they confer socio-political importance on Berry, but his genius, I think, was not for social commentary.
I’m interested in Berry’s lyrics less for their political significance than for their vigorous, ingenious use of language. Berry loves words. Only in his songs does one encounter words such as “jitney,” “meddlesome,” “tussle,” “botheration,” “sulphuric,” “calaboose,” and (in two instances) “vestibule.” He occasionally coins new words, most famously the word “motorvatin’,” which appears in the first line of “Maybellene.” It’s a brilliant coinage, recombining the cognates “motor,” “motion,” and “motive.” This purposeful (if perhaps not intentional) looseness with language reaches its apex in his 1964 song, “You Never Can Tell,” the story of a teenage wedding and its happy aftermath. Here is the second verse:
They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale,
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale.
But when Pierre found work, the little money comin’ worked out well
“C’est la vie,” say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.
“Furnished off” is another clever coinage, blending “finish off” with “furnish.” Berry also demonstrates a fitting verbal economy in the phrase with which he suggests the couple’s domestic economy: “a two-room Roebuck sale.” A less elliptical version of this sentence might read, “They finished off a two-room apartment with furniture bought on sale at Sears-Roebuck.” Instead, Berry packs the words in as joyously and efficiently as his protagonists cram TV dinners and ginger ale into their Coolerator.
The rock critic Robert Christgau provides a brief but insightful discussion of Berry’s exuberant use of language, calling him “the greatest rock lyricist this side of Bob Dylan.” He writes,
Both [Berry and Dylan] communicate an abundance of the childlike delight in linguistic discovery that page poets are supposed to convey and too often don’t, but Berry’s most ambitious lyrics, unlike Dylan’s, never seem pretentious or forced. True, his language is ersatz and barbaric, full of mispronounced foreignisms and advertising coinages, but then, so was Whitman’s. Like Whitman, Berry is excessive because he is totally immersed in America–the America of Melville and the Edsel, burlesque and installment-plan funerals, pemmican and pomade.
What Christgau calls “the childlike delight in linguistic discovery” can be seen in the flamboyance of Berry’s similes. His song “Nadine” features a number of these metaphorical flourishes. At one point the singer, as he pursues Nadine, is “campaign-shouting like a southern diplomat;” later he is “[m]oving through the traffic like a mounted cavalier.” Nadine herself “moves around like a wayward summer breeze.” The combination of fanciful similes and precise physical details–he spies Nadine walking towards a “coffee-colored Cadillac”–elevates the song far above its uninspired plot, which is essentially a retread of “Maybellene.”
The other aspects of Berry’s language that Christgau notes–mispronounced foreignisms, advertising coinages, a total immersion in America–can all be found in the song “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” We find here a strikingly mispronounced foreignism: the Venus de Milo is disfigured not only by the loss of her arms but also by Berry’s referring to her as “Milo Venus” (or, perhaps, “Marlo Venus”). Advertising culture is represented here by the mention of TWA, Americana by the joyous baseball verse. Other small delights are sprinkled throughout the song as well, such as the loss of Venus’s arms being foreshadowed by the phrase “she had the world in the palm of her hand,” and her dismemberment being compensated for by the acquisition of a brown-eyed handsome man. The phrase “walking thirty miles en route to Bombay” is so far-fetched as to be almost nonsensical, yet it is precise and vivid; the same holds for Venus losing both her arms in a wrestling (rassling?) match. And each verse is marked by the ingenious and surprising way in which it makes its way back to the song’s titular hero, and by the way the fifth line comes in as a breathless, comical afterthought. All this in two minutes and eighteen seconds, with time left over for three verses of guitar and piano solo!
One more example, this one 2:22 in length. Its title is “The Promised Land,” one of a handful of titles that Bruce Springsteen would later take from Chuck Berry. It was recorded in 1964, after Berry got out of prison, and while he was riding the wave of the Beatles’, The Rolling Stones’, and the Beach Boys’ professed admiration for him. This song, like so many of his songs, is narrative rather than lyric in its thrust; the singer is telling what happened to him in the past, rather than describing a present emotional state. It’s a seemingly straightforward narrative, telling of a journey that starts hopefully, nearly turns disastrous, and then ends happily. The song’s title and its final verse’s “Swing low, chariot” suggest two theological parallels for this voyage: the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, and the individual soul’s corresponding figurative crossing of the river Jordan into heaven. One possible historical context for the song might be the great migration of African Americans from the south, here given a westward rather than a northward trajectory. Another, more immediate historical context, as some scholars have recently argued, was the Civil Rights struggles of the ‘50s and ‘60s, particularly those of the Freedom Riders. Yet another possible context is a biographical one: Berry composed this fantasy of transcontinental travel while in prison for having crossed state lines with a minor.
These contextual readings of the song lend it weight–religious, historical, biographical–but perhaps they freight it with too much significance (“Too Much Monkey Business,” to borrow another of Berry’s song titles.) To some extent, the narrative of the voyage seems to be mainly a device on which to hang some brilliant turns of a phrase, such as the literalization of the metaphor of the Greyhound bus, which becomes an actual dog that the singer then straddles and rides into Raleigh. The “T-bone steak a la carty,” another of Berry’s mispronunciations, is a lovely detail, made more so by his verb choice (“working on a T-bone steak”) and by its coincidence with the pilot’s improbably precise announcement (“in thirteen minutes he would set us at the terminal gate”).
Perhaps because of their foundational status in the history of rock and roll, Berry’s songs lend themselves to abstract, mythic readings. Thus “Roll Over Beethoven” can be said to be about the clash of popular culture and high culture, the displacement of cerebral, white classical music by embodied, black rhythm and blues. At the same time, that song’s greatest accomplishment may be its offhand transformation of “walking pneumonia” into “rocking pneumonia,” followed in the next line by a corresponding ailment, “rolling arthritis.” I think that too often authors reach for large categories of “Race” or “Myth” or “History” to try to make popular culture worthy of serious attention. The small verbal felicities in Berry’s lyrics, and in lyrics in general, are as interesting and as significant as the moments in which those lyrics gesture toward or intersect with history or politics.