An American scribe in the geo-mythological tradition of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, Chuck Berry ranks as one of rock’s most literate lyric-laureates. He is also the principle innovator and coordinator of the mid-1950s’ emergent rock ‘n’ roll form, as well as one of its funniest and most subversive humorists. Like Twain and Whitman, Berry’s American purview was one that encapsulated national scope and energies. His “everychild” narratives united the country’s youth beneath the broad tent of rock ‘n’ roll, providing the vocabulary and spirit it craved as it rumbled against old adult hegemonies.
The clever humor that stokes the fires of Berry’s lyrical landscapes like those of Whitman and Twain were borne of personal inspiration as well as mythical tradition. Beneath the apparent straightforward ease of his youth-propelled narrative tales were the heart and soul of the trickster, craftily employing self-conscious humor towards rebellious ends. As with Whitman and Twain, Berry represents a fundamentally rooted American character: the patriotic dissenter. In prowess and (sense of) place and again, like Whitman and Twain Berry is a quintessential, all-American maverick.
Just as important as his literary antecedents are Berry’s musical roots. Though working from a limited and formulaic stylistic template, Berry’s sound suggests diversity; a reach into the depths of both country music and R&B for that unique and familiar patented fusion. Likewise, in his lyrics, the troubadour tall-tales of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams merge with the black urban party-pranks of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan sagas. Yet beyond these traditions, Berry’s work resonates with innovation and originality. Just like the classic American writers whose aesthetic he shared, Berry’s work consistently evokes, on the one hand, a reassuring connectedness by virtue of its wholly American foundations, and on the other, the new provocative challenges of re-contextualization.
Nowhere is this artistic inclination more apparent than in his trickster-derived rhetorical codes. Historically a deep-rooted African mythos, the trickster applies his verbal skills in order to deceive and contest in the public terrain. As witnessed in the work of Louis Armstrong and others, “signifying” trickster humor has often been deployed by African-Americans as a method of pride and survival in the face of oppressive social forces (see “Alternative Rock Cultures: Laughin’ Louis Armstrong: The Trickster”. It embodies a playful approach achieved through adept linguistic signification, often spoken in two or more tongues. In African archetypal folklore, the Yoruba’s trickster tale of the signifying monkey, Eshu, is oft-cited. It was a source incorporated by Cab Calloway in his 1947 song, “The Jungle King”, and Berry updated it for his 1958 cut, “Jo Jo Gunne”. Essentially, the story illustrates how, in a battle of wits, the wittiest rather than the strongest adversary prevails. Berry clearly realized that he could not win the war against America’s racist white hegemony, but through allegory he could score points in a few skirmishes. However, to achieve such ends, he appreciated the necessity of playing in enemy territory as a successful crossover artist, applying his skills as a trickster humorist to both reach and subvert mainstream terrain.
Arriving on the musical landscape in the early 1950’s, Chuck Berry—dark-skinned, in his late 20s, signed to the independent Chess label—did not appear as a likely candidate to be the revolutionary voice for middle-class white suburban youth culture. However, he soon used his apparent deficiencies to his advantage. Age maturity provided a shrewdness that enabled him to imaginatively inhabit the world of youth, and his musical passion for both R&B and country & western, rather than leaving him without a niche, blasted open a broader space for musical adventure. A product of predominantly middle-class white schools, Berry felt somewhat alienated and, post-school, drifted into some minor criminal activity. These outsider experiences as a youth later fed and multiplied his artistic reach as an adult, in addition to cultivating the subversive streak that would fuel the fires of his lyrical bite. By seemingly fitting nowhere, Berry created a musical vision that had the capacity to reach everywhere. Coupled with an ambition to conquer and willingness to compromise, Berry adeptly walked the same racial and cultural tightropes that fellow-trickster Louis Armstrong once had.
For any black artist attempting to cross over to mainstream audiences in the mid-50s, race posed the primary hurdle. The challenge for Berry as for contemporaries like Little Richard and Bo Diddley was to create a style that would reach out to, and then draw in, unfamiliar audiences. The challenge was to discern and connect to the perceivably alienated youth demographic without alienating in the process. Berry like his contemporaries found humor as the protector that would facilitate defiance and provocation, but without scaring listeners.
In “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1956) he constructed a song that employed trickster double-speak that could cross over to mainstream audiences and simultaneously convey a devilish subtext that contested racial stereotypes and injustices. Though initially released as the B-side to “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” stands as one of Chuck Berry’s most strident cuts of subversive humor and a prototype of the black pride protest song. The “brown eyed handsome man” character (a sly synonym for “black handsome man”) pops-up in various episodes/verses within the song, mostly serving as objects of appeal for multiple (white) women of good social standing. Though protected by his comedic code (i.e., the misnomer “brown eyed”), Berry hereby entered (through his subject) American society’s no-go territories of miscegenation and social-class transgression simultaneously.
The first verse presents a classic racist scenario whereby the “black man” is facing trumped-up charges; he has been “arrested on charges of unemployment”, wryly informs the narrator. To the rescue comes an adoring judge’s wife, who demands her husband “free that brown-eyed man”. The song proceeds to other anecdotes and other women across time and races, including one mother who encourages her “beautiful daughter” to opt for a “brown-eyed handsome man” over a doctor or lawyer (code “white”). In another verse, “Milo Venus” loses both her arms in a wrestling match fought over the brown-eyed handsome man. And in the final verse, Berry waves the flag of racial pride with an allusion to fellow black trailblazer, Jackie Robinson, as the victorious brown-eyed handsome man passing home plate. A sweeping song, Berry’s anecdotal brevity and wit pervade every verse, each skewering some holy cow of racist white hegemony.
With missionary zeal, Berry deployed his trickster subversions across racial, gender, and class lines. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” showcased his ability to challenge all three of these fronts within one song, and elsewhere he set about creating insurrectionary anthems that would reach and rally round the restless youth of America. Like most trickster humorists, Berry had an acute awareness of his circumstances, as well as the wily methods required to circumvent them. His keen grasp of the post-1945 baby boom phenomenon was evident in his specific lyrical themes. Berry keyed in on particular symbols to capture the increasingly gaping generation gap, and to give voice to the concomitant youth yearnings for independent adventure and escape. Thus, he wrote teen-centered car songs like “No Particular Place to Go” and “Maybelline”, the latter released as his debut single in 1955. Detailing a lovers’ car chase, “Maybelline” sees the speaker’s V8 Ford racing against Maybelline’s Coup de Ville. The verses detail the thrill of the ride, incorporating car rhythm-alluding alliteration and classic Chuck puns (like “motor-vatin’”) throughout the journey. “Why not compete with Noah Webster?” he dryly inquired in his 1987 autobiography, itself a text of entertaining linguistic dexterity. Through both style and substance, Berry’s car songs wittily capture the youthful feelings of autonomy and daredevil abandonment that so scared the wits out of responsible parents.
Another symbol Berry employed to set youth in stark and combative opposition to adult institutions and culture was the new rock ‘n’ roll form itself. “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956) was a sophisticated “diss” of white adult European-derived cultural sophistication, as well as a celebratory revel in the joys of rock ‘n’ roll. A revolutionary anthem, Berry sends out the clarion call to “tell Tchaikovsky the news” that there is a new sound in town and it is for youth ears only. Inverting the then-pervasive perception of rock ‘n’ roll as a dangerous plague on American youth, “Roll Over Beethoven” presents it instead as a sweet sickness, a “rockin’ pneumonia” and “rollin’ arthritis”. As that metaphor extends, Berry broadens the humor, comparing rock ‘n’ roll to a new cultural Noah’s Ark as the kids dance their way into the new world, “rockin’ in two by two”. The physical release of rock ‘n’ roll dancing is also set in sharp contrast to the adult stiffness of classical music, as the narrator alludes to the in-crowd, “Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes”, then shoots out two (e)motional similes: “You know she wiggles like a glow worm / Dance like a spinning top.” All this linguistic play and succinct satire is drilled out over a primal backbeat unprecedented in popular music of the time. The comedic and artistic diversity of “Roll Over Beethoven” showcases Berry at the height of his lyrical and musical pointedness.
“School Day” (1957) continued Berry’s merciless tweaking of the raw nerves of the generation gap. Again, he selects a symbol to pursue his investigative humor; here, it is the school. The school was a ripe sign because, like the legal system in “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Thirty Days”, it constituted an institutional means of adult restraint, control, and containment. Thus, in “School Day” (and later in “Sweet Little 16”), Berry pits the liberationist world of rock ‘n’ roll against the stultifying rules of school life. “Soon as 3 o’clock rolls around / You finally lay your burden down”, narrates Pied Piper Berry, who then proceeds to guide his lyrical lens from school to “juke joint” (a subtle African-American referent). The transformation from adult confines (the school) to youth freedom (the club) is captured with the instruction to “drop the coin right into the slot” of the jukebox. However, it is the way Berry’s voice lingers on the “D” of “drop” that creates the humorous suspense of transition. With its comic use of onomatopoeia, the “D…rop” signifies the passing from one situation to another, and ultimately from the authority of one generation to the awakening of another. And if the insurrectionary humor was not sufficiently apparent through the narrative, the song concludes with a rally around the manifesto slogan, “Hail, hail, rock ‘n’ roll / Deliver me from the days of old”. It would be over 10 years before rock music would provide such assertive, yet accessible, statements of proto-political opposition to the reigning adult order.
Berry continued to produce similar youth-rock anthems throughout the late ‘50s and into the early ‘60s, but his career was largely derailed between 1962 and ‘64 when he was sentenced to a prison term under the Mann Act, found guilty of transporting a young prostitute across state lines. In this instance, his predilection for youth and fun tested too-far the tolerance of the authorities. The British invasion bands of the ‘60s were supportive of Berry and, on his prison release, helped him resurrect a comeback, but he never again was able to capture his ‘50s glory years. In 1972, though, he did receive an unexpected but welcome surprise with the success of “My Ding-A-Ling”, a novelty number which reached the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Full of sexual double entendres, the song hardly matched the subversive weight of his earlier recordings, though it continued to suggest that the aging Berry was not through with provoking parental authorities with controversial material.
The legacy of Chuck Berry is beyond both documentation and speculation; he has left his distinctive fingerprint upon subsequent rock history in so many different ways and means, but in three key areas his influence has been monumental:
Lyrically, Berry has influenced a million songwriters who have appreciated rock ‘n’ roll as an art form capable of addressing myriad topics beyond the hitherto staple of personal romance (or the lack thereof) with wit and wisdom. According to Berry’s reflections in his autobiography, he merely wrote “songs of novelties and feelings of fun and frolic in the lyrics of (my) compositions”; here one hears the tongue-in-cheek voice of the trickster again, understating, acting, and teasing the reader with a false modesty wrapped in disarming alliterative charm.
Subculturally, Berry made it “cool” to be part of and participant in the new rock ‘n’ roll spirit and lifestyle; he made identification with youth rebellion a pre-requisite of being a self-respecting youth; he made differentiation from adult identity as a necessary marker of being a “player” in the burgeoning youth subculture. His silly “duck walk” dance, self-deprecating grin, or neo-swing baggy clothes each functioned as an evocative subcultural metaphor of youth distinction both for the rebel congregations of the ‘50s and for those that would follow thereafter.
Musically, Berry attained crossover appeal without having to soften his sound. Though not averse to the art of compromise, and blessed with Louis Jordan-like access in his articulate vocals, the music’s production was always raw (though not cluttered), powerful (though not abstruse). His vocal/guitar call-and-response interplay was simple and distinct, but somehow evocative and new-sounding. He described this guitar method as “like ringing a bell” in “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), and its sonic peels can be heard echoing through the work of many an axe-man since, among them George Harrison and Keith Richards. Complementing that elemental guitar sound was the pounding piano and primal drum rhythms, together creating a cumulative instrumental assault that complemented the rebellious force of the lyrical satire. Overall, a roots-rebel-rock tradition was established in Berry’s music and words, one that has been regenerated in so many rock styles that have followed, particularly in punk rock. Just listen to any Ramones album and you will be reminded of the unremitting three-chord formulas of the Chuck Berry rock ‘n’ roll template, as well as an update of his irreverence in their subversive stabs of concise imagistic lyrics.
In essence, Chuck Berry is a-merry-can rebel. Wielding humor as his weapon, and gifted with the imaginative scope of his nation, he has charted and captured the tenor and ruptures of his time, for his time. And like those maverick American literary forebears, Twain and Whitman, Berry has paraded his stars and stripes nationally, expressing core traits of patriotism in his inclusive reach and dissenting spirit.
* * *
The above essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book about rock-related artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.