Monday, August 30, 2010

Chuck Berry: Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Thinking about matters of Race and Chuck Berry I went to youtube looking for a good version of "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," a song Berry recorded in his third session at Chess in 1956 along with "Too Much Monkey Business," "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Havana Moon."  (Pretty good day's work!) I was hoping to find video of Taj Mahal's lilting caribbean rendition ( but ended up with Waylon Jenning's racially redacted rendition instead.

The song was written during the civil rights movement, just months after Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat, and during the height of the bus boycott that followed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was making himself a national reputation. So were Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. So was Chuck Berry.

The lyrics are extraordinary, and can be found on Berry's own website, where they are top of a small heap of songs listed there (they ought to add more).

Author Bruce Pegg spends several paragraphs disecting "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" in his book of the same name, and describes it as the first black pride song in rock and roll.

Most of the song's protaganists are women, one "running cross the sand en route to Bombay," another losing "both her arms in a wrestling match" to get one of the men. The "judge's wife" is another.

Only two brown eyed men are actually described-- one who's in court, "arrested on charges of unemployment," and another who's "rounding third and heading for home" after popping a game winning home run-- (a stanza that smacks of pure Willie Mays in my imagination, Others see Jackie Robinson or Hank Aaron). It's sort of the yin and the yang of the black experience in 1956, as filtered through Chuck Berry's amazing imagination.

But back to youtube, where I found this Waylon Jennings version. Jennings bats his (brown?) eyes coquettishly and sings about the women but leaves out the brown eyed handsome men and omits the real meaning of the song. No one's arrested for being denied employment in Jenning's version, and there's no Willie Mays or Jackie Robinson, either.

I like Waylon Jennings-- but times do funny things to people.

When he did this one on television, Jennings evidently wasn't "outlaw" enough to sing the song that Browned Eyed Chuck Berry was brave enough to write.

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