To trace the whitewashing of rock, I want to focus on a song that inspired generations of white rockers, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys. By discussing Chuck Berry’s 1958 guitar-driven anthem, “Johnny B. Goode”, we can illuminate the compromises Berry felt forced to make for the emerging white teen market that both downplayed and highlighted what Toni Morrison calls the Africanist presence in ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and beyond.
The shift from “colored boy” to “country boy” indicates the unfortunate realities of white supremacy in a country where a less racially specific term, such as “country” can become a universal trope covertly signaling whiteness and white values.The basic guitar riff of Berry’s “Roll Over, Beethoven” — later copied by the Beach Boys in “Fun, Fun, Fun” — is used again in the opening to “Johnny B. Goode”. This opening is propulsive, repetitive, and exciting, incorporating stop-time rhythm here and at other instrumental passages in the recording. The opening verse sets up a class narrative that attempts to transcend race:
Deep down in Lou’siana close to New OrleansWay back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play a guitar just like a ringin’ a bell. (qtd. Taylor 166)
As Berry wrote in his Autobiography, he originally wrote the lyrics as “a colored boy named Johnny B. Goode”, but he “thought it would seem biased to white fans to say ‘colored boy’ and changed it to ‘country boy'” (157). This decision reflected African American artists’ growing awareness of the white teen market and its salience: it was clear by the ’50s that the capital African American artists craved was often supplied by a lucrative white consumer base, growing with the economic prosperity following World War II.
The lyrics reveal numerous signifiers of poverty in this verse: from a remote location, “[d]eep down” in the South, “[w]ay back up in the woods”, with an extremely simple “log cabin made of earth and wood”, emerges an illiterate “country boy” who is naturally gifted on the guitar. Berry seeks to convey the humble origins of the title character, who clearly comes from a place removed from so-called civilization: rural, impoverished, and possibly pre-industrial. As musicologist Timothy D. Taylor notes, other parts of the song are filled with “rural African-American imagery, such as gunny sacks and railroad tracks” (170), so the song does not disavow Berry’s roots in African American culture, but the shift from “colored boy” to “country boy” indicates the unfortunate realities of white supremacy in a country where a less racially specific term, such as “country” can become a universal trope covertly signaling whiteness and white values. When Berry made the lyric change, he recognized that the dominant methods for interpreting music involve not recognizing race, and “country boy” fits within this paradigm. [I should note that “country” does have white connotations, perhaps including the historical nostalgia that scholar Geoff Mann says marks country music as “sounding white”.]
Many read this song as a kind of autobiographical myth for Berry, though he grew up middle class (Garofalo and Waksman 95). As critic Dave Marsh notes, by changing the lyric to “country boy”, he made the story applicable to Elvis Presley and his white fans (3). Berry wrote in his autobiography that he originally intended the song to be a tribute to his pianist, Johnnie Johnson (156), but it quickly became about a Berry-like figure whose mother dreams that he will be a star. Though the song is often interpreted as about fame, Marsh asserts that the song’s title character is dreaming about the chance to escape poverty (2).
The song became an anthem for generations of rock guitarists, being voted the #1 greatest guitar song of all time in 2008 by Rolling Stone magazine. But in the decades following the further whitewashing of rock in the ’60s, “Johnny B. Goode” increasingly became a symbol of whiteness. The best example of this trend is seen in the 1985 movie, Back to the Future, in which actor Michael J. Fox travels in time to play “Johnny B. Goode” at a dance in the ’50s with an African American band (Movieclips). As blogger Justin Peniston writes, the scene seems to project the fantasy that white Americans could have created rock ‘n’ roll, as Marty McFly (Fox’s character) plays this supposedly new song for an unsuspecting white audience as if he created that song and style. So Marty McFly serves as a stand-in for Elvis Presley, a white figure who takes African American music and brings it to a bigger audience. McFly even uses Berry’s stage moves, including the famous “duck walk”, before playing a guitar riff reminiscent of surf rock, a style heavily influenced by Berry. He then devolves (from the perspective of the audience) into a series of theatrics recalling later guitarists like Jimi Hendrix (playing behind his back), and ends the clip by saying, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet.”
Despite this being a form of appropriation where McFly takes credit for Berry’s innovations, ostensibly erasing the Africanist presence of early rock ‘n’ roll, the performance serves as the Africanist presence in a scene with an all-white audience because it is written by an African American and performed with an African American band. Similarly, the presence of Berry’s riffs, for example in songs by the Beach Boys like “Fun, Fun, Fun” served as the Africanist presence in ’60s rock as blacks were largely erased from the rock scene. When I say “Africanist presence”, I’m referring to American literature and culture appearing to affirm a race-neutral identity that is actually white and formed in opposition to the black presence in the United States (Morrison).