A Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.25.19 PMI’ve been mourning a gifted African-American poet who died this week. Charles Edward Anderson Berry was 90. The news media talked mainly about his brilliance as a guitarist and showman and his historical importance as perhaps the prime creator of rock and roll, and all that was true, of course. But what I always admired most of all about Chuck Berry was the extraordinary verbal fluidity and imagination of the songs he wrote.

Berry loved to tell stories in song. “Maybellene” (1955), his first recording, was about a car chase between a Ford V8 and a faithless woman in a Cadillac Coupe de Ville. (It was modeled on an older country-and-western favorite, “Ida Red.” Berry knew as much about country music as he did about the blues.)

“Johnny B. Goode” (written in 1955, released in 1958) is another story song, about an illiterate but gifted young man from Louisiana who would wrap his guitar in a gunny sack and carry it down to the railroad, where he would sit under a tree playing to the rhythm of the train wheels. The original version said:

“The people passing by, they would stop and say,
‘Oh, my, that little colored boy could play.’”

But in the 1950s everything was segregated, and you wouldn’t get played on white radio stations if you had even a word about black people, so it was changed to “that little country boy could play.” Even someone who could play the guitar like ringing a bell sometimes had to make compromises if his name was going to be in lights. (“Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” in 1956, hinted mischievously at black men’s attractiveness throughout, but subtly, mentioning only eye color.)

It’s the famous guitar opening that all the rock musicians mention when asked about “Johnny B. Goode,” but what impresses me most about it is the way the skilfully composed word sequences pound along like a train at full speed.

Berry’s poetry stands head and shoulders above the unimaginative oh-baby-let’s-rock lyrics of so much popular music. His “Down Bound Train” (1955), for example, tells of a religious-conversion experience triggered by a nightmare:

A stranger lying on a bar room floor
Had drank so much he could drink no more
So he fell asleep with a troubled brain
To dream that he rode on that down bound train.

The train is crewed by demons and headed straight to hell with a full complement of passengers (“Rich men in broadcloth, beggars in rags, handsome young ladies and wicked old hags”), all howling in fear. But the stranger wakes with an anguished cry and pledges to reform, so he is spared that ultimate journey: “He never rode that down bound train.” It’s a folk ballad sung to a driving rhythm on a single minor chord, from fade-in to final fade-out. I’ve never heard a song quite like it.

Havana Moon” (1956) is another little-known story song, told in West Indian patois to a Latin rhythm, about a boy in Havana who falls in love with a beautiful American visitor. She returns to Cuba for him, but he sips a little too much rum and falls asleep while waiting for her boat to reach the dock. He never makes the rendezvous, so she re-embarks, and the boy wakes to see the ship heading for the horizon. The story is told with scarcely more words than I just used to paraphrase it, and the music uses only two chords.

Many of Berry’s songs, though, are about fun and dancing and young people: “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and dozens of others. They show the same poetic genius: It’s not just the energy and the backbeat and the guitar work that make the songs so thrilling, it’s the linguistic skill.

He had a knack of composing staccato syllabic sequences that push a song along like a powerhouse drummer, whether the words are about the alienating experience of school (where “the teacher don’t know how mean she looks”), or the clichéd chatter at a joyous wedding reception (“C’est la vie,” say the old folks, “it goes to show you never can tell”), or the rapid-fire complaints in “Too Much Monkey Business,” full of wry commentary on menial jobs and daily frustrations (“Salesman talking to me tryin’ to run me up a creek: Says you can buy it, go on try it, you can pay me next week”).

The lyrics of Berry’s up-tempo songs are often tricky to enunciate at speed. But if you can do it the way he could, and play a driving beat on the low strings of a guitar at the same time, you won’t even need a passing train for your rhythm section.

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