Wednesday, May 23, 2012

All ABOARD! (Newingburg, Kingston, Albany & On We Go!)

Chuck Berry songs are often about geography and transportation. There are Fords, de Villes, Jaguars, trains, planes, Airmobiles, souped-up jitneys and Greyhound busses. Johnny plays guitar by the railroad track and gets on a bus to go get famous. And there are cities, states and towns galore—most in the United States, some foreign. Havana’s moon, and a desert outside of Bombay.

Flying cross the desert in a TWA
I saw a woman walking cross the sands
Walking thirty miles on route to Bombay
To meet a brown eyed handsome man

Another one on the international scene, there’s Havana Moon. The original is wonderful. The remake, done for 1979’s Rockit, is weird and—in a weird way—sort of wonderful. There’s a bit of the “ra-daka-daka” style backup of “Almost Grown,” and a weird beat that Chuck Berry evidently called “disco.” No one would do the Hustle to this one, but it sticks to the brain pan like old pancake batter to steel bowl.

Here's a version by Santana:

Back in the USA, we know they’re rocking in Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, deep in the heart of Texas, in Frisco, St. Louis and down in New Orleans. Close to New Orleans, too.

The song “All Aboard” is the pure poetry of place names.
All aboard!
Newingburg, Kingston, Albany & on we go
to Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo.
Erie, Pennsylvania, Cleveland on the lake shore
Whistle at Lorain, Sandusky to Toledo
Let her roll, hello Indiana by Ohio
South Bend, Gary change trains in Chicago
Charleyette, Bloomington, Decatur, make a right flank
Springfield, St Louis on the muddy banks
Switching locomotives catching MKT making Whizville
Boonville and K.C. cutting to Topeka no more little bitty
Towns where she stops till she hits Oklahoma City

Most of the songs look south from his home town of St. Louis, or west to California.

The Promised Land hits many of the southern states and should be required reading in high school geography: Norfolk, Virginia; Raleigh in North Carolina, Rockhill, South Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia just to get started. In his autobiography Berry says he wrote the song in prison. “I remember having extreme difficulty while writing “Promised Land” in trying to secure a road atlas of the United States to verify the routing of the Po’ Boy from Norfolk, Virginia to Los Angeles.”

Maybe the song should be heard in history class, too. When he gets close to Montgomery, Alabama, there’s something like a bus boycott. A struggle and a breakdown, anyway (things are always breaking down in Chuck Berry songs. Think of “Move it!” “Dear Dad!”)

Had motor trouble
That turned into a struggle
Half way across Alabam’
And that ‘hound broke down
And left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham

It might mean nothing that Berry was released from prison a month after the white terrorist bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963, a landmark event in the civil rights struggle, or that the song was recorded five months later. But our hero makes the point of riding “cross Mississippi clean” during the next phase of his journey. Then New Orleans and Houston, where he gets put on an airplane. From there everything’s cool, with T-Bone steak ala carty. He’s flying cross the desert again, but this time high over Albuquerque.

The late 1970s song “California” is also about the promised land, and mostly celebrates the Spanish names of a state that used to be Mexico. (Then again, Redding, Needles and Barstow made the cut!)

San Francisco, Sacramento
Will I ever go to Los Angeles or San Diego?
To Redding or Fresno?
Needles or Barstow, California I have so far to go.

(San Jose isn’t represented. But Chuck Berry used to tell people he was born in San Jose. He bought a bus there, too. He must have first seen it back in the day when there were blossoming orange trees and purple mountains, and not the multi-million dollar tract homes and silicon that plaster hundreds of square miles of that valley today.)

Alabama is well represented. “Let it Rock” takes place in Mobile. Memphis shows up in a lot of songs, and Louisiana comes up as often as Memphis--first in “Sweet Little Sixteen” and more famously in “Johnny B. Goode.” Pierre and the Mademoiselle drive to New Orleans to celebrate their anniversary in “You Never Can Tell.” The boat-full of Bordeaux is floating down there somewhere. My favorite reference is in a beautiful, little known song called “Oh Louisiana.”

Oh Lou’sana
Creole baby, Cajun queen
Great porches and windows
Filet de gumbo and basil beans
Your beautiful delta
And bayous of green
Ohh-ohh! Lou’sana!

The song is from a record called San Francisco Dues and was ruined just a little by the temporary insanity of a wah-wah. But the music, poetry and geography are fine.

Oh Lou’sana
I’m flying on Delta 903
Right over St. Louis
High over Memphis, Tennessee
On southward to the sea
Where I long to be
Oh, Lou’sana
(Decades ago I sang “Oh Louisiana” on the streets of San Francisco. I wasn’t much of a singer or guitar player, and most people contributed money only because I was skinny and barefoot and they were moms. But as I sang “Oh Louisiana” a tall African American man with whiskers, sunglasses and an African cap came, listened, and nodded to me. My fantasy is that it was Taj Mahal. I think it actually was. Alas for me, I know that whoever it was nodded because of the song, and not the singer.)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking us on this "Road Trip" with Chuck's music. Lets not forget Route 66, although written by Bobby Troup and not CB, Chuck most have thought alot of this classic. Nat King Cole, one of Chuck's hero's singing it probably brought him added interest and joy for the song.
Thanks for the great blogging Peter!! When do you find time to work?? LOL...

CB Forum ID - Busseybootlegger

Peter said...