Friday, February 27, 2009

Chuck Berry's Sense of Humor

One of my favorite Chuck Berry songs is "Promised Land," a succinct tale of pilgrimage to the West as experienced by a modernized "poor boy" of American folk myth. The poor boy yearns for California. He leaves Virginia and makes his way there by bus, train and airplane, assisted at each obstacle by strangers. Here are the first two verses:

I left my home in Norfolk, Virginia
California on my mind
I straddled that Greyhound and rode it past Raleigh
And on across Caroline

We stopped in Charlotte and bypassed Rock Hill
And we never was a minute late
We was ninety miles out of Atlanta by sundown
Rollin' 'cross Georgia state

I've always thought "bypassed Rock Hill" was a particularly great, and intriguing, lyric. Why mention a place you don't go? And why did they bypass Rock Hill, anyway? There's a note of mystery there. It works on a lot of other levels, of course - the contrast between a place you stop and a place you don't adds to the propulsive rhythm of the song; it foreshadows coming obstacles; it supports the theme of a perilous, uncertain journey. And there's a breezy, whimsical quality to it: bypassed Rock Hill, just like that. Troubles may lie ahead, but not there. It was bypassed.

Why might the poor boy want to avoid that particular bus depot?

I was reading David Remnick's recent piece in the New Yorker about Barack Obama and John Lewis, the civil rights leader and Georgia congressman, and was stunned to find this:

As Lewis walked around the Mall last week, shaking hands, posing for hundreds of photographs, a young African-American introduced himself as the police chief of Rock Hill, South Carolina. "Imagine that," Lewis said. "I was beaten near to death at the Rock Hill Greyhound bus terminal during the Freedom Rides in 1961. Now the police chief is black."

I wondered whether "Promised Land" was written after 1961. Well, turns out it came out in 1964. The way songwriting goes, I'd say that means Chuck wrote it in '62 or '63. I'd like to commend him on his sense of humor.