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 His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.

  • Guillermo Perez Arguello

    The writer is taking the entire thing about Elvis and Chuck more seriously than those REALLY involved did. Chuck Berry, when asked about this said in 1989, in an ointervew with NBC TV. “I would like to think of myself as one of the key cogs in the wheel. along with Fats Domino, ElvisPresley , Fats Waller, Louie Jordan, and Little Richard …” And as to appropriation, this is what BB King said. “Elvis didn’t steal any music from anyone. He just had his own interpretation of the music he’d grown up on, same was true for me. I think Elvis had integrity (In fact), more than anyone, he was the guy who kicked the revolution into high gear. (Moreover) what most people don’t know is that this boy was serious about what he was doing, he was carried away by it. He’d been a shot in the arm to the business and all I can say is ‘that’s my man’. To me they didnt make a mistake when they called him the King. His autobiography and interview with ABC TV in 2002 refers. As to the title of King, Presley went even further than either Berry and King, telling 17,000 at the University of Notre Dame, on September 30, 1974 that he could not accept it, because to him, there was only one King, and that was Chrsit. Nuff said.

  • borris batanov

    Berry was notable for ignoring racial or genre boundaries, unlike the small-minded Mr. Swan. If Swan knew anything about Berry, he would have known that Berry liked and was influenced by disparate music, everything from Frank Sinatra to country. Anybody with an ear can hear the obvious huge influence country music had on Berry, e.g., Johnny B. Goode.

    Berry was one of, if not the first to recognize and exploit the teen market.

    He stated that he lifted his classic rhythm riff whole from the left hand of his piano player, Johnny Johnson. In fact, boogie woogie piano, with its left-hand rhythm, had a profound effect on rock ‘n roll, viz, Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” (Sun), arguably the first rock ‘n roll tune.

    The fathers of rock are, imo, Berry, Little Richard & Bo Diddley, with Ray Charles in there somewhere, too.

    My favorite Berry tunes, done by Berry, are Nadine and No Particular Place to Go. My favorite Berry covers are Talking About You by the Stones and C’Est La Vie by Emmylou Harris.

    Chuck Berry’s passing marks the end of an era.

  • borris batanov

    O, btw, with very few excepti0ns, blacks were happy to have their tunes covered by whites. It meant wider recognition and royalties. The notable , infamous exception, of course, was Pat Boones’ awful corruption of Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti. Am sure Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, by contrast, had no problem whatsoever with Elvis’ cover of his “That’s All Right Mamma.”

  • John Adams

    The author of this piece complains that Carl Sagan, a white professor at Cornell, got to choose all the music for the Voyager Interstellar Records which were sent into space attached to the twin Voyager space probes in 1977. Well, if it had not been for the legendary Carl Sagan, there might have been NO music or anything else of human culture preserved in deep space as representative of our species at least on that mission. NASA was not big on doing these kinds of gestures: It was Sagan who made them happen along with the Pioneer Plaque launched twice several years earlier.

    Despite how it must seem to the youth of 2017, Sagan and his crew did their best to be very sensitive to other cultures when creating the record. That they were white people (including 2 women) is not exactly their fault. They only had a few months to work on a pauper’s budget. Let us be grateful that they did preserve what they could of our species in spite of all the limitations and not get all PC. I guarantee you that anyone who finds these records one day will neither know or care about what a bunch of equally white and privileged Western students thought of something made long before they were born and probably only just learned about in class.