Essays

Chuck Berry and the Modernist Fable of “Johnny B. Goode”

The jackhammer chatter of the song’s opening riff lets us know that the pastoral is past.

Chuck Berry performing at the "Biggest Show of Stars For ’57" concert in Edmonton, Alberta (Richard G. Proctor Photography Limited fonds, Provincial Archives of Alberta, via Wikimedia Commons)
Chuck Berry performing at the “Biggest Show of Stars For ’57” concert in Edmonton, Alberta (Richard G. Proctor Photography Limited fonds, Provincial Archives of Alberta, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Johnny B. Goode” is Chuck Berry’s two-and-a-half minute essay on the Machine in the Garden.

In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, the cultural historian Leo Marx explores the philosophical tension between colonists’ visions of America as paradise regained — the Edenic idyll familiar from Edward Hicks’s folk painting, “Peaceable Kingdom” (ca 1833) — and the America of the Technological Sublime, a humming dynamo of technological progress and gadget worship.

For Marx, this dialectic is neatly summed up by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s encounter with industrial modernity on the morning of July 27, 1844. Hawthorne is musing idly in the Concord woods, where “sunshine glimmers through shadow, and shadow effaces sunshine, imaging that pleasant mood of mind where gaiety and pensiveness intermingle,” when the bucolic peace is shattered by the whistle of a nearby locomotive, a “long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness” that reminds the writer that civilization’s swarming anthill is not far off. With historical hindsight, we can hear it, too, as the annunciatory trumpet of the 20th century, just around the bend.

In “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), Berry zooms in with a camera eye, taking us “Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans /  way back up in the woods among the evergreens,” a setting that, if not exactly Arcadian, is at least rural. But the jackhammer chatter of the song’s opening riff lets us know the pastoral is past. Dragging the blues out of its “log cabin made of earth and wood,” Berry hitches it to the chugging of a steam engine’s driving wheels, leaving the languorous rhythms of Delta blues in the rear-view mirror. Unlike another African-American folk hero, John Henry, the steel-driving martyr to Luddism who beat the steam hammer but died of exhaustion, Johnny keeps pace with the passing locomotives, “strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made.”

Country blues is rubato, speeding up and slowing down in defiance of the metronome’s tick. Its elastic sense of time accommodates a song’s changing moods, but it also reflects the pace of life in the pre-industrial South, before the coming of the time clock and the assembly line, when most labor meant farm work, tied to the seasons and the rising and setting of the sun. By contrast, Berry’s machinelike rhythms are products of postwar America. His machine-gunned double stops — two strings played at once, slurred from one fret to the next — give revving engines a run for their money. His rhythm parts — the deathless “Chuck Berry chord,” a barre chord with a major sixth (and sometimes a flatted seventh) on top — hammer home their point with the staccato insistence of a locomotive piston. Spat out with rivet-gun speed and uniformity, Chuck Berry licks sound mass-produced, as if they were turned out on a Detroit assembly line.

Chuck Berry circa 1958 (via Wikimedia Commons)
Chuck Berry circa 1958 (via Wikimedia Commons)

As important, the masses can produce them: for decades, mastering the intro to “Johnny B. Goode” was a rite of passage for any aspiring guitar hero. And, in keeping with the Fordist logic of postwar manufacturing, Berry’s musical vocabulary is a kit of parts. His little widgets are modular, easily recombined into a seemingly endless series of musical assemblages, as Keith Richards and a wave of British invaders soon discovered.

“Someday your name will be in lights,” Johnny’s mother prophesies; we assume he’s bound for the big city, a trajectory Berry himself followed when he drove from St. Louis to Chicago, in 1955, to land a record deal with the legendary Chess label. “Johnny B. Goode” is rock’s earliest exercise in self-mythologization, a thinly veiled autobiographical fiction whose first draft starred “a colored boy named ‘Johnny B. Goode” who was “more or less myself,” admitted Berry, in his 1987 memoir, The Autobiography. Ever mindful of his crossover potential, Berry changed the lyric to “a country boy” because, he later claimed, “I thought it would seem biased to my white fans to say ‘colored boy.’” But his alter ego was still Berry, by any other name, and therefore still black, if only subtextually: Johnny owes his surname to Goode Avenue in St. Louis, the site of Berry’s childhood home.

At the same time, Johnny stands in for every African American who embarked on the Great Migration — the exodus, beginning in 1915, of millions of blacks from the rural, agrarian, Jim Crow South to the urban, industrial North, specifically to Chicago. The opening scene of “Johnny B. Goode” isn’t just a cinematic zoom-in on some backwoods Dogpatch; it’s a trip back in time as well, a fade-in on the antebellum South. “The gateway from freedom, I was led to understand, was somewhere ‘close to New Orleans’ where most Africans were sorted through and sold” into slavery, wrote Berry, in The Autobiography. “I’d been told my grandfather lived ‘back up in the woods among the evergreens’ in a log cabin. I revived the era with a story about a ‘colored boy named Johnny B. Goode.’”

At once exuberant and slyly ironizing, Berry’s songs are road trips through the American mythos. He saw things through W.E.B. Du Bois’s dark veil of race as it’s lived, and from the illusionless perspective of a sensitive, intensely private black man who grew up in a time when the threat of violence shadowed even the most mundane interactions between the races. Yet he lived to see his name in lights on the Fox Theater on Grand Avenue, in St. Louis, where the ticket-seller had told him, as an 11-year-old, that he couldn’t see A Tale of Two Cities because the Fox was a whites-only movie house. “You know you people can’t come in here,” he recalled her saying, in the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’  Roll. (Was the irony of the title lost on the lady in the ticket booth? We’ll never know. It’s hard to imagine it was lost on someone who loved wordplay as much as Berry.)

He duck-walked the always fine and fraught line between black and white Americas with winking aplomb; his Trickster guile is on display in “Johnny,” in allusions that flew past white ears. In Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry, Bruce Pegg wonders if Johnny was another incarnation of the archetypal “man of the black masses with provincial concerns” who served, in Langston Hughes’s “Here to Yonder” column in the Chicago Defender, as a philosophical foil to the “educated black man with a more global perspective.” In a suggestive coincidence, Hughes’s countrified Everyman was named Jesse B. Simple.

As well, there are resonances, in the lyrics of “Johnny B. Goode,” with African-American history. In The Autobiography, Berry claims, in one of several versions  of the song’s origin story, that it was inspired by his first visit, in 1955, to New Orleans, “a place I’d longed to visit ever since hearing Muddy Waters’s lyrics, ‘Going down in Louisiana, way down behind the sun.’ That inspiration, combined with little bits of Dad’s stories and the thrill of seeing my black name posted all over town in one of the cities they brought the slaves through, turned into the song ‘Johnny B. Goode.’”

Chuck Berry performing at the Long Beach Blues Festival in 1997 (photo by Masahiro Sumori, via Wikimedia Commons)
Chuck Berry performing at the Long Beach Blues Festival in 1997 (photo by Masahiro Sumori, via Wikimedia Commons)

But we can hear echoes, too, in that opening line, of the African-American folktale of the Signifying Monkey, an irreverent mischief-maker based on Esu, the Trickster figure of Yoruba myth. Like Berry himself, the Monkey is a master of signification, manipulating language to his own, wily ends. One rhyming version of the Signifying Monkey tale begins, “Deep down in the jungle so they say / there’s a signifying motherfucker down the way /  There hadn’t been no disturbin’ in the jungle for quite a bit / For up jumped the monkey in the tree one day and laughed / ‘I guess I’ll start some shit.’” Not coincidentally, Berry knew that version, and thought it “naughty and funny” but too obscene, obviously, for 1950s America.

“Johnny B. Goode” also testifies to black folks’ embrace of newborn technologies such as the electric guitar and amplifier, not to mention special effects like distortion, reverb, and electronic tremolo (taken to B-movie extremes by Bo Diddley, an inveterate tinkerer who designed his own jaw-dropping guitars — think Russian Constructivism with tail fins — and souped them up with homemade electronics). Berry was “completely fascinated,” he said, in his autobiography, by the reel-to-reel magnetic wire recorder he bought, early on. Hearing his playing mechanically reproduced profoundly altered his sense of his sound. “Historians of technology have usually characterized technological enthusiasm as a white male pastime,” Steve Waksman observes, in Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. Berry’s “acquisition of the means to record himself and his professed fascination with these means certainly demonstrates a high level of interest in ways of shaping sound through electric technology.” “Johnny B. Goode,” Waksman speculates, may be the first song by an African-American guitarist to feature overdubbed guitar tracks.

In a broader sense,  “Johnny” speaks to black artists’ appropriation of the Modernist aesthetic, and their ability to drive flaming donuts around it, signifying the shit out of it, as the Monkey might say. In The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, Henry Louis Gates defines signifying, in the black vernacular sense, as the art of moving “freely between two discursive universes” — “the white linguistic realm,” Eurocentric and self-consciously literary, and a parallel black dimension that wrests the tool of language from the master’s hand and turns it to its own uses, be they political, playful, subversive, or outright seditious. Berry was a peerless Signifier, reveling in rhyme, alliteration, double entendre, mock grandiloquence, and playful neologisms (“As I was motorvatin’ over the hill…”).

Conceptually, his songs are wry snapshots of the American Scene in the 1950s; harmonized with Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958), they make interesting historical music. Berry was Pop before Warhol, Johns, and Rauschenberg were Pop. (When I hear “Back in the USA,” I always imagine it as the soundtrack to James Rosenquist’s “F-111.”). Later, in 1970, Jimi Hendrix would deconstruct “Johnny B. Goode” as he had “The Star-Spangled Banner,” reimagining Berry’s masterpiece of Pop miniaturism as an Abstract-Expressionist explosion of drips, smears, and lashes of sound.

In its moment, Berry’s music was thoroughly modern: jump-cutting, hyperkinetic, ironic, intertextual, infatuated with the bright, shiny surfaces of consumer culture, giddy with the pedal-to-the-metal acceleration of postwar America. Taken together, his ‘50s classics are a brown-eyed man’s road trip through a nation being transformed by technology and consumer culture — a psychogeography of a cultural landscape defined by the Mercury launches and the mushroom cloud, jet airliners and the Interstate Highway System, the arrival of TV and the invention of teen culture (which had Berry’s fingerprints all over it). “Johnny”’s refrain, “Go! Go!” is what Ezra Pound’s Modernist battle cry, “Make it new!” sounds like when it’s blown down the wind, the gleeful shout of a black man in a “yellow convertible four-door De Ville” with “a powerful motor with a jet off-take,” flooring it for the Promised Land.

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