Farewell Mr Rock’n’Roll

The web is bursting with tributes and obituaries to Chuck Berry, the songwriter and guitarist who died on Friday at the age of 90. And this is understandably so. Berry’s famous repertoire which includes songs like ‘Johnny B Goode,’ ‘Maybellene,’ ‘You Never Can Tell,’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ – just to name a few – his iconic  lyrics, performing, and ability to invent infectious guitar riffs have made me him a giant among giants of American popular music. I do not want to add to growing list of tributes by simply talking about Berry’s life, his hits, his troubles with the law, or experiences of American racism. This is being done extensively and more successfully elsewhere. However, I feel compelled as a social and cultural historian of the United States, as well as a musician and aficionado of the blues to comment on Berry’s stature as a true great.

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Berry’s famous ‘cakewalk’

First of all, Berry penned some truly fantastic songs which – to borrow a well-known cliché – have really stood the test of time. He didn’t invent rock’n’roll, but for me he was undoubtedly the genre’s greatest advocate. There aren’t many artists and songwriters whose opening riffs manage to hook you in so quickly. Just have a listen to the classic opening riffs from ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘You Never Can Tell’ (a note for the uninitiated: both of these featured famously in the movies Back to the Future [1955] and Pulp Fiction [1944] respectively). He was also a great performer (see the famous guitar ‘cakewalk’), which worked extremely well with his storytelling style. A song my band often plays that illustrates these qualities is ‘The Promised Land,’ but check out his showmanship on this performance of ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ from 1956.

Second, it is clear from the current tributes that Berry had an enormous influence on the major artists of the 1960s, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, et al. While this is undeniable and another criterion of greatness, it is also important to remember that he borrowed and adapted from the rich African American musical traditions of blues and gospel of the interwar years. Rock’n’roll did not emerge in a vacuum, and Berry is one among many post-war musicians that created new sounds out of the hugely varied stock of black music of the 1920s and 1930s. However, borrowing from a range of influences such as T-Bone Walker and Leadbelly, he fused his music with a new rhythm and attitude that came to characterise the rock’n’roll revolution of the 1950s.

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Berry with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones

This is what also makes Berry significant historically. This revolution was not political – at least explicitly – but generational. Teenagers all over America began to shake their hips to these infectious rhythms, and sought excitement and pleasure in things and ways that their parents did not (and often could not) understand. This was all in the era of fierce anti-communism, when going against the grain was not the easiest of life choices. Just look at the responses to the movie ‘Blackboard Jungle’ on both sides of the Atlantic. Importantly, rock’n’roll, and perhaps Berry’s music most of all, embodies the fusion of black and white musical culture during the post-war era. It rebelled against the idea that the races should or could really be separate. What is significant, at least for me, is that Chuck Berry’s songs demonstrate how music has the power to transcend the boundaries of race, class, and culture, even though at times it can also work to reinforce them.

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