It’s not an original thing to say that America’s music is one of its biggest gifts to the world—but it’s a true thing that bears repeating. Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Country, Rock and Roll, R & B, Soul, Funk, Rap.
It’s a gift that keeps on giving, ain’t it?
And it comes from our diversity. Look at the list: the only music that didn’t start in the African American community is Country-- but even so, modern country music is drenched in the blues.
It is the mixing and matching that make the music so wonderful. Chuck Berry writes a “hillbilly” tune. Elvis and Carl Perkins sing R & B. Ray Charles brings gospel into pop music. John Coltrane plays a song from The Sound of Music. Miles Davis plays Michael Jackson. Otis sings the “Tennessee Waltz.” Sly Stone yodels like Jimmy Rodgers. Bob Dylan channels Muddy. The rappers sample them all.
There is a lot we can be proud of. (The Constituion. The Declaration. Our old movies.) There's a lot we should NOT be proud of. (Torture. Slavery. Vietnam. Iraq. Tax breaks for the wealthy.)
But our music-- that's one of our great legacies. It thrills me. It thrills the world. (I should add, paranthetically, that the world's music thrills me, too. I spent a decade of my life drenched in African highlife and soukous and Jamaican reggae, and I've been thrilled by music from everywhere from Tibet to Bulgaria to Mexico. We have no monopoly. We just have what we have-- and it's great.)
And I have no hesitation putting Chuck Berry up there with the greatest contributors to American history-- up there with Washington, Jefferson and Franklin-- as one of the greatest Americans. (I put Lincoln and King a step higher. They are untouchable.) His contribution is different; he didn't write a constitution. But he wrote songs that set us free, in a lot of ways, a ringing gift to the world that will be felt forever.
And for me, personally, an entry into something bigger, huge and good, almost eternal. I can only comprehend a tiny smidgen of it-- but Chuck Berry got me started near the foundations, with good instructions on how to find even more.
Here's "Waiting for a Train" from the Father of Country Music (and a direct influence on the king of modern funk, Sly Stone! Lordy!)
(And did I say that Sly Stone yodeled like Jimmie Rodgers?)