Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Reason to Go On Living: The Poor Boy's On the Line

(Cross-posted at NewCritics.)

A friend, knowing the kind of research I'm doing for my book on the roots of bluegrass, hipped me to a collection called "The Music Never Stopped: The Roots of the Grateful Dead." The collection, an amalgam of the original versions of songs covered by the Dead, perhaps unintentionally demonstrates how good the Dead were at taking lively and engaging roots music and turning it into turgid, sludgy, boring slop.

(The last time I ripped into that band in these pages, I got into an unpleasant comment-fight with a fervent Deadhead, so I'll stop there...)

I was listening to the collection in my truck, driving home from the grocery store, loving Reverend Gary Davis, Howlin' Wolf, Marty Robbins ("El Paso," a song I had on an LP as a kid -- nostalgia rush there!), Merle Haggard, Cannon's Jug Stompers. Then Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" came on, and I found myself whooping and pounding the dashboard.

Is this a great song, or what? (pops)

I left my home in Norfolk, Virginia,
California on my mind.

A more pretentious person than myself might try to read High Mythic Meaning into this little tune. I have to admit, Chuck suggests it himself in this brilliantly economical little couplet. Never is his protagonist's actual purpose in this journey mentioned -- it seems like a trip out West just for its own sake. It also suggests Huck Finn's "lighting out for the Territory," escaping the "sivilizing" he's in danger of. Wagons, Westward, ho!

I straddled that Greyhound, rode him into Raleigh,
And on across Caroline.

Greyhound bus as trusty big-assed steed! Anthropomorphizing a goddamned bus! (Or whatever the right word is for turning an inanimate object into an animal...) Genius!

We stopped in Charlotte but bypassed Rock Hill,
We never was a minute late.
We was ninety miles out of Atlanta by sundown,
Rollin' outta Georgia state.

Blair Jackson, who wrote the liner notes for The Music Never Stopped," suggests that Berry managed to avoid having his music associated with any particular region of the country by universalizing his place-names: "He literally brought cities from all over America into his lyrics, effectively unifying different regions under a new rock-n-roll banner." That's as may be -- it certainly doesn't hurt the chances you'll buy a record if your own home town is named in it -- but this litany of American place-names, all whizzing past in this gorgeously economical narrative, reminds us not of our unity under a rock-and-roll banner but of the astounding distances between places in Flyover Country.

We had motor trouble it turned into a struggle,
Halfway cross Alabam',
And that hound broke down and left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham.

"Left us all stranded..." In downtown Birmingham, Alabama -- in, presumably, 1964, when this lyric was written, perhaps even in jail. (Berry did a four-year stretch for violation of the Mann act, 1959-63.) How'd you like to be a black man, just out of prison, stranded in that place and that time? But notice the collectivity of that "left us all stranded": It's not just the Poor Boy's journey -- we're all bozos on this bus...

Right away I bought me a through train ticket,

Get outta town, Poor Boy!

Ridin' cross Mississippi clean
And I was on that Midnight Flyer out of Birmingham
Smokin' into New Orleans.

Somebody help me get out of Louisiana
Just help me get to Houston town.
There are people there who care a little 'bout me
And they won't let the Poor Boy down.

Sure as you're born, they bought me a silk suit,
Put luggage in my hands,
And I woke up high over Albuquerque
On a jet to the Promised Land.

So this leg out of New Orleans seems to have been accomplished by panhandling just enough scratch to get to Houston, or maybe by hitching a ride. Times are dire. Our Hero is at his all-time lowest point. Just get to Houston, Poor Boy! But who are these Unseen Benefactors, who "care a little about me"? How did the Poor Boy ingratiate himself so thoroughly so as to earn a new suit, and "luggage in his hands"? There's volumes in what Chuck doesn't tell us, here... I love the ambiguity in the third line: Listen to the way Chuck phrases, "Woke up [pause] high..." How high did you wake up, Poor Boy? How'd you come to fall asleep?

Workin' on a t-bone steak a la carte
Flying over to the Golden State;
When the pilot told us in thirteen minutes
He would set us at the terminal gate.

Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone;
Cut your engines and cool your wings,
And let me make it to the telephone.

A la cartey! Har!

Look how the language changes when the plane reaches the Promised Land, how many ultramodern (for 1964) terms he gets in: "terminal gate," "taxi," "terminal zone," "cut your engines," "make it to the telephone." Up till now the trip's had several modes of transport, most of them originating in the Victorian era -- buses, trains, cars. And note how few nouns that aren't place-names there are in the first verses. To a Poor Boy, raised in that world, the East he's lighting out from, the things he observes in his surroundings just don't seem to be worth mentioning. But now that the Promised Land is near, and he's using the most up-to-date -- and pricey -- mode of transport possible, he busts out with all this observation, this noticing of things.

And, in the midst of all this enthusiasm for modernity, he throws in a Negro Spiritual.

God, what a great lyricist!

Los Angeles give me Norfolk, Virginia,
Tidewater four ten oh nine
Tell the folks back home this is the Promised Land callin'
And the Poor Boy's on the line.

"Norfolk, Virginia, Tidewater four ten oh nine" works out to (757) 844-1009 ("Tidewater" referring to the old-style local exchange, TI, which is 84.) I so wanted to call that number, even if just to ask if the Poor Boy ever calls any more.

Alas, it's not in circulation.


claret said...

heh heh... he's *almost* pronouncing "Norfolk" correctly, too...

John B. said...

Great post Neddie. I always loved that song too. Chuck Berry never ceases to amaze me, his licks, his songs and his lyrics just plain soar, IMO. Big influence in my learning how to play many years ago now. Go Johnny GOGOGO...

PS. Played that red strat the other day. Loran loaned it to me for the weekend. Really nice neck on it, really different from my strat, a'57 remake...and great tone too.

flem snopes said...

Chuck Berry is one of the icons of my youth.

The first record album I ever bought was One Dozen Berries in 1958.

I was 14.

Jeremy said...

Great post Ned. And I always preferred Promised Land to Route 66. It has so much more sktdjjv.

Gary Oxford said...


Dr Dave said...

"borrowed"... remember that, now....

Anonymous said...

The "poor boy" in the song "bypassed Rock Hill," which I bet was a sly reference by Chuck to the town where Civil Rights leader John Lewis was beaten unconscious when he dared to get off a Freedom Riders bus in 1961!