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Courtesy of Donal F. Holway/The New York Times.

March 21, 2017

SWAN | Chuck Berry and the Things We Ignore

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MUSIC 1101, Elements of Music, begins with a rather thorough discussion of the Voyager Golden Records. Each record contains a somewhat lengthy selection of music, which was compiled in 1977, by a committee chaired by Cornell’s Carl Sagan, then professor of space sciences. Of course, this spurs the musicological debate on archival selection and canon formation. Is it even remotely fair that an American professor, grounded in Western culture, is in charge of leading the effort to select music representing societies of the entire world? The final lineup is indeed unjustly skewed towards the inclusion of Western musical examples and traditions.

However, there is one justified choice among the numerous inequities on the Voyager Golden Record and that is Sagan’s inclusion of “Johnny B. Goode,” by Chuck Berry. With Berry’s recent death on March 18, I have noticed many references around various social media to his inclusion on the record, all exclaiming that his music will live forever. So many celebrities over the past several decades have praised Berry’s extensive influence over the inception of rock and roll and its subsequent development. Nevertheless, it is Elvis Presley who has been canonized as the “King of Rock and Roll.” This supreme idolization of Elvis is, at worst, an acceptance of Jim Crow era social norms, a time when only a white man could front the image of an emerging musical genre. Early rock and roll was not the creative experiment of white people. On the contrary, it emerged from the blues genre, which stemmed from the musical traditions of African-Americans. It was musicians like Chuck Berry who invented the artistry and attitude of rock music. Fortunately, Chuck Berry has been given much credit in the years since his prime period of popularity, many asserting him to be the chief pioneer of rock and roll. Any sole reference to Elvis as being the King is completely ignorant of the black originality of the genre, and I am glad that Carl Sagan was aware of this fact in 1977, when he chose “Johnny B. Goode” instead of “Jailhouse Rock,” for the Golden Record.

Chuck Berry’s career was not without its problems or questionable occurrences. In 1959, he was arrested and charged, under the Mann Act, with moving a fourteen-year-old Native American girl across state lines — it was additionally alleged that he had sex with her. On these charges he was found guilty and served three years in jail during the early 1960s. Furthermore, in 1990, a group of women sued him on allegations that he installed video cameras in the women’s bathroom of a club he owned. On this matter he ultimately settled out of court. Yet, to merely label Berry a sexual offender would be contrary to the general purpose of this column, by laughably asserting judicial impartiality of the criminal justice system in the American South during the twentieth century. I bet that there was a degree of racism and white resentment present in both legal settings, and the antiquated language of the Mann Act was certainly ambiguous at the time. But, we all know that rock and roll — and popular culture in general — has a tendency to objectify people, those objects being its own vanguard of stars or women in its lyrics and mindset. Many characterize the inception of rock and roll as the initiation of a rebellious, teenage state of being. I believe that this characterization is rather innocent and much too white. If rock music really stems from African-American musical traditions, then its inception is not of mere teenage angst but anger. This nearly thirty-year-old man did not turn the volume of his guitar up so loudly and duck walk and shout across stages to pander to some young Americans, whose caricatures one observes in Hairspray or American Graffiti. Chuck Berry was asserting his humanity in the face of Jim Crow America by inventing gritty, expressive riffs and mocking the ridiculous physicality of the Al Jolson, black entertainment mentality. Unfortunately, he did so by calling on the already ingrained societal subjugation of women by playing songs like “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “No Particular Place to Go,” even embodying this mentality through questionable behavior with women outside of his music career.

Rock is indeed a profound mode of artistic expression and its development in the twentieth century is a fascinating subject to study. Its early years may have been dominated by male artists and questionable lyrics, but soon after a profound group of women began to use the genre’s expressive powers for their own assertions. In its truest form rock music can be used by all, and for that, anyone affiliated with the genre must owe a degree of thanks to Chuck Berry.

Nick Swan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nswan@cornellsun.com. His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.