Obit

Chuck Berry: Duckwalking Towards Bethlehem

April 11, 2017

Chuck Berry

Berry got his start playing with pianist Johnnie Johnson, who “€œsued him in 2000 over songwriting credits and royalties to a number of hit songs.”€ Hilariously:

[Keith] Richards had also been Johnson’s most vocal and ardent supporter and argued for Johnson’s deserving credit, telling “€˜Rolling Stone”€™ magazine, “€œIn a way, I”€™m a bit responsible. I said to Johnnie, “€˜These songs should really say Berry/Johnson.”€™ It was obvious after talking to him and watching him play. But Chuck being Chuck, you”€™d be lucky to get a quarter. Or you”€™d end up paying him.”€

While popular-music scholarship now presents a more nuanced version of rock history, it remains an article of middlebrow faith that “€œwhites stole rock & roll from blacks.”€ Whereas it would be just as true to say that blacks stole rock & roll from other blacks:

Little Richard borrowed heavily from Esquerita, right down (or, more accurately, up) to the hairdo; his “€œopen letter to the music industry”€ to the contrary, Chubby Checker flat-out ripped off Hank Ballard; and after Fats Domino came to town, pianist and singer “€œSmiley“€ Lewis earned another nickname: “€œthe unluckiest man in New Orleans.”€

But the myth persists, hence the surfeit of (I still say justifiable) “€œBack to the Future is racist!”€ essays easily found online. And anyone who thinks white liberal virtue-signaling is a 21st-century cyberphenomenon should dust off their copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In Joan Didion’s “€œNew Journalism”€ traipse through 1967 San Francisco, we meet a gaggle of white hippie “€œstreet theater”€ performers, in blackface, wearing signs on their backs reading, among other things, “€œWHO STOLE CHUCK BERRY’s MUSIC?”€

Incredibly, they begin jabbing a “€œNegro”€ passerby with nightsticks:

“€œI”€™m beginning to get annoyed here,”€ the Negro says. “€œI”€™m gonna get mad.”€

By now there are several Negroes around, reading the signs and watching.

“€œJust beginning to get annoyed, are you?”€ one of the Mime Troupers says. “€œDon”€™t you think it’s about time?”€

“€œNobody stole Chuck Berry’s music, man,”€ says another Negro who has been studying the signs. “€œChuck Berry’s music belongs to everybody.”€

“€œYeh?”€ a girl in blackface says. “€œEverybody who?”€

“€œWhy,”€ he says, confused. “€œEverybody. In America.”€

“€œIn America,”€ the blackface girl shrieks. “€œListen to him talk about America.”€

“€œListen,”€ he says helplessly. “€œListen here.”€

“€œWhat”€™d America ever do for you?”€ the girl in blackface jeers. “€œWhite kids here, they can sit in the Park all summer long, listen to the music they stole, because their bigshot parents keep sending them money. Who ever sends you money?”€

“€œListen,”€ the Negro says, his voice rising. “€œYou”€™re gonna start something here, this isn”€™t right”€””€

“€œYou tell us what’s right, black boy,”€ the girl says.

Like anyone who writes from the right, I get called a “€œwhite supremacist”€ a lot. Which is a scream, because half the time, I think we”€™re just goddamn embarrassing.

Pay to Play - Put your money where your mouth is and subscribe for an ad-free experience and to join the world famous Takimag comment board.