Tuesday, May 9, 2017


An infinite number of rockin' pop records can be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!

CHUCK BERRY: "Promised Land"


What does the word mean? Can its essence be defined, at least in terms of its meaning within popular culture? Does being free entail more than the slipping of shackles, both literal and metaphorical, more beyond the mere absence of slavery or indentured servitude? In this country, we equate freedom with our embrace of The American Dream, the unfettered right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To many of us, this concept of freedom translates precisely into possibilities.

Now: what did freedom mean to a black man in 1950s America?

I won't presume to know the answer. But isn't it likely to have meant the same thing anyway? Possibilities. Dreams. The pursuit of happiness, participation in The American Dream, the right to live and love and worship and dance. The additional obstacles on the long and twisting path to freedom, the spurious but entrenched roadblocks placed by Jim Crow and Good Old Boys (both rural and urban, in north and south), all the traps and troubles and dangerous (sometimes lethal) detours don't alter the desired destination. Freedom. Deliverance. The Promised Land.

In John Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath--perhaps the great American novel--the Joad family leaves its home in Oklahoma during the ruinous Dust Bowl devastation of the Great Depression, seeking a better life in California. Some of my mother's family, living in Southwest Missouri during that economic calamity, took a similar dusty blue road west, and encountered much of the same bitter resistance that the fictional Joads suffered. The folks from Oklahoma were described derisively as Okies; the Williamses and Stouts of Missouri were called Pukes, and God damn any self-righteous mutha who ever dared to refer to my family that way. The beleaguered persisted, hell-bent on reaching the promised land.

Chuck Berry knew well the travails of the downtrodden. Dark skin, humble origin, destined to transcend all and everything to become the single most important performer in the history of rock 'n' roll. His mind was quick, his fingers precise, wedding intricate, unforgettable wordplay to a guitar he played like a-ringin' a bell. He struggled. He pushed. He got noticed. He got pushed back. He kept pushing back in turn, smiling and duck-walking, while quietly seething behind his flamboyant mask. A nice man? Tough to say, but beside the point. An important man? If you've ever loved rock 'n' roll, you should be ashamed to even ask that question.

Berry built the foundation (and much of the walls) of his legacy in the '50s, when segregation was commonplace throughout much of this Land of the Free, when failure to mind one's place wasn't just a breach of protocol; it was a de facto criminal act. 

Into this tinderbox, Chuck Berry brought black music that made white kids dance. He wrote in code--most famously, the irresistibly potent brown-skinned handsome man became (wink) a brown-eyed handsome man, man--but he crafted and chronicled the American teen-age dream with greater eloquence than anyone, black or white. It was inevitable that he would be slapped down.

Some say that he mighta had it coming. Maybe. Others say the rap was racially-motivated, pure and simple. Berry was busted for a violation of the Mann Act, transporting a minor across a state line for immoral purpose. It's plausible to suggest that Berry may have been guilty, but it's also plausible that he wasn't. Guilty or not, Berry spent a year and a half behind bars. While still a guest of the state, Berry wrote "Promised Land." 


With its music adapted from the traditional "Wabash Cannonball," Berry's lyrics told the tale of a poor boy from Norfolk, Virginia following his dream west, chasing a vision of prosperity and bliss in the same mythic paradise sought by Tom Joad, sought by some members of my own family: California. The Promised Land.

The road to the promised land is laden with setbacks, peril, like the Greyhound that had motor trouble that turned into a struggle half-way across Alabam', 'til that hound broke down and left 'em all stranded in downtown Birmingham. But there is also deliverance: a through train ticket from Birmingham to New Orleans, hitchhikin' to loved ones in Houston, who--sure as you're born!--won't let the poor boy down: new silk suit, luggage in his hand, he wakes up high over Albuquerque on a jet to the promised land.

It's the wee wee hours at the end of 1964. The Beatles and The Animals and The Rolling Stones are already in the process of reminding everyone that "Chuck Berry" and "rock 'n' roll" are the same damned thing, and they won't let the poor boy down, either. He's seen the promised land. We've all seen the promised land. We feel its warmth, taste its sweet sense of liberty, of possibility. Freedom. Tell the folks back home this is the promised land calling, and the poor boy is on the line.

Most of Chuck Berry's best-remembered tracks were released in the '50s: "Maybelline," "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Day," "Rock & Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," each a Top 10 hit in that golden span from 1955 to 1958, with the # 2 hit "Sweet Little Sixteen" the highest-charting of the bunch.  His late '50s output was just as good, but not as popular. He returned to the # 10 spot with "No Particular Place To Go" in 1964, and scrapped his way up to # 14 the same year with "You Never Can Tell." He would not have another big hit song until the silly single-entendre novelty "My Ding-A-Ling" gave Chuck Berry his first and only # 1 hit, in the far future (and less discerning) world of 1972. Chuck Berry's only # 1 hit. My freakin' Ding-A-Ling. You wanna talk about committin' a crime...?

So "Promised Land" was not a big hit. It peaked at # 41. But it's my favorite Chuck Berry song, my # 1 among an incredible collection of Chuck Berry classics. Swing low chariot, come down easy, taxi to the terminal zone. The road still leads to an everlasting somewhere. For the Okies. For the Pukes. For Tom Joad and for my kin, for the brown-eyed handsome men and the ladies who love them, the American dreamers, the poor boys, and the poor girls, too. Chuck Berry wrote a song for you. Chuck Berry wrote a song for all of us.

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