Chuck Berry’s “The Promised Land”

I’ve been listening to Chuck Berry since I was six years old. I was lucky enough to witness the great social upheaval that was rock ‘n roll in the mid 50s. I was also extremely lucky having an older brother who let me play his great record collection. My favourites were Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. It never occurred to me that some of these artists were black and some were white. But that was exactly what was on the mind of the music industry.

Chuck Berry

I never heard Chuck Berry’s “The Promised Land” on the radio when it was released in 1964. I heard two different versions of the song in 1971 – Johnnie Allen released a fine Cajun version (with the great Belton Richard on accordion) and Dave Edmunds’ group Rockpile put out a great rocking version. It was still common practice in those days to hear “cover versions” on the radio, where a hit by a black artist was quickly recorded by a white performer, who would get all the airplay. The 1956 Chuck Berry song “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” was originally called “Brown-Skinned Handsome Man,” but it was much easier to get radio play with the new name. In the case of “The Promised Land”, it was mostly ignored in the U.S. because Chuck Berry had just gotten out of jail in 1964 and the predominantly white music industry wouldn’t touch him. Everybody whispered that he was jailed for prostitution but Chuck Berry was jailed for being a black man who didn’t know his place.

The United States enacted the Mann Act in an attempt to curb prostitution or any other “immoral” act involving interstate transport. In its application, the Mann Act gave the police “carte blanche” to arrest any black man, for any or no reason. Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, was arrested twice under the Mann Act in 1916, for having a white girlfriend. In 1959, Chuck Berry was handsome, rich, drove a Cadillac, wore fancy clothes and had many girlfriends, some white. A white cop who could barely feed his families on his meagher salary couldn’t let that go. He had to be shown his place. Berry was arrested in 1959 and sentenced to five years in jail. The sentence was later reduced to three years and he eventually was incarcerated for a year and a half.

Racial discrimination is ingrained in American society and has been for centuries. They fought a civil war over it. I will not go into the atrocities that occurred in the case of Jesse Washington in 1916, but I encourage you to look it up. It’s important to know who your neighbours really are.

In my lifetime, I have witnessed the systematic lynching and murder of black people in the United States. On June 21, 1964, when I was just starting high school, three civil rights workers went missing after the police in Philadelphia, Mississippi, first arrested them. They were part of the “Freedom Summer” campaign to help register blacks to vote. On Aug. 4, the FBI discovered their bodies in an earthen dam, buried along with eight other black men who had previously been lynched. This incident was the basis for the excellent 1988 Alan Parker film, “Mississippi Burning.” More recently, lynching and the Ku Klux Klan are at the heart of Spike Lee’s 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman.” And let us not forget Colin Kaepernick, the talented young black quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who had the audacity to kneel during the playing of the national anthem to protest against police brutality and the oppression of black people. White America, led by the biggest idiot in the land, quickly turned this into disrespect for the armed forces, a sacrosanct topic among our belligerent neighbours, and Kaepernick hasn’t played football since. Sensible people found this ludicrous and Nike launched a new advertising campaign using Kaepernick as their spokesman. Reaction from white America was swift, with the widespread burning of Nike shoes, much like they burned rock ‘n roll records in the 50s.

I only heard Chuck Berry’s original 1964 recording of “The Promised Land” sometime in the eighties. It made me smile because it reminded me of his 1958 hit “Sweet Little Sixteen.” At that time I was in third grade and starving for knowledge and Sweet Little Sixteen’s chorus mentioned seven cities and place names. It was like getting a free geography lesson! “The Promised Land”, however, mentions a total of twenty-one cities and place names! On the surface, the song lyrics are about a bus ride from the East Coast to the West Coast of the U.S., fraught with motor trouble, getting stranded and other struggles. Having decided to record the song, I was curious about Rock Hill (South Carolina), which I knew nothing about.

The Freedom Riders

I found out that in 1961, when Chuck Berry was in jail writing “The Promised Land”, Rock Hill was the first stop for a group of young political activists called the Freedom Riders, who boarded buses and rode across the U.S. to protest racial segregation in all interstate public facilities. When they stepped off the bus at Rock Hill, they were beaten by a white mob that was uncontrolled by police. The Freedom Riders made several stops on their voyage through the South. In Charlotte, North Carolina, some were arrested, others beaten. In Alabama one of their buses was firebombed. In Birmingham (Alabama), they were again attacked by a white mob.

Welcome to Birmingham

At that point, the riders had to be evacuated to New Orleans, bypassing Rock Hill, where the riders first experienced violence. I couldn’t believe it. It was all there before me, all the cities mentioned in the song. I had found the true meaning of “The Promised Land.”

And that’s what Chuck Berry is all about. On the surface, he’s a great singer, an imaginative and gifted songwriter, a witty lyricist, and a very influential and talented guitarist.

Richard and Roch

But when you look below the surface, Chuck Berry is one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

 
Richard Séguin – voice, electric guitars, electric bass
Roch Tassé – drums

 
The Promised Land

 
P.S. Chuck Berry died in March, 2017. Lest we forget his incredible beauty, here he is in his prime.

 

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