Memphis (Chuck Berry)

There are a few things in my past I look back on with shame, and one is that I was such a wrongheaded pseudo-folk-purist that it took the Kweskin Jug Band’s version of “Memphis” to make me realize the song might be appropriate material for a serious young folksinger like myself. Admittedly I was only about twelve years old, but still…

I’m pretty sure I’d heard Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade by the time I heard the Kweskin version, and I know I always liked Berry’s version better that the Jug Band’s, which frankly was not one of their stronger performances. But I thought of  Berry as playing teen oldies music — better than the Monkees, but still closer to them than to someone like Skip James or Mississippi John Hurt, or Muddy Waters.

At that point I had no idea that Waters had been an early mentor to Berry, nor had I yet discovered the Rolling Stones, who had helped a lot of my folk-blues revival models make that connection. I was coming to all of this late, and kind of feeling my own way with a hodge-podge of various older friends’ records as guideposts. So on the one hand I was hearing Chuck Berry and enjoying him, and even saw him live when I was eleven or twelve, thanks to an older friend named Bill Clusin — Bill lived in my folks’ house in Woods Hole for a few winters, and it was his copy of Golden Decade that introduced me to the original version of this, and then he took me and my sister to see Berry at Cape Cod Coliseum, which was godawful loud, but great. But on the other hand, the first three Berry songs I learned had — not coincidentally — been recorded by young, white, revivalists: “Memphis” from the Kweskin aggregation, “No Money Down” from John Hammond, and “Too Much Monkey Business” from Tom Rush.

I did grow up, eventually, and we’ll get to “Nadine” and “Promised Land” in later posts. Meanwhile, however wrong my logic, I was at least learning Chuck Berry songs, and soon had the sense to begin accumulating his records as well.