Promised Land (Chuck Berry/Freedom Riders)

I’ve been playing Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” for years, and always loved it, but I recently learned that it had a deeper level of meaning, related to a historic moment in the Civil Rights movement. Berry isn’t usually thought of as a political or protest songwriter, but that’s one of the many ways he has been underestimated. In 1956 he got a national R&B hit with a witty paean to Black beauty, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” and this song about a cross-country journey is apparently a celebration of the dying of Jim Crow transportation with a nod to the Freedom Riders.

In the first verse, Berry is traveling by Greyhound bus, and sings that on the way through the Carolinas they “stopped in Charlotte, but bypassed Rock Hill.” I had never heard of Rock Hill, and since it made no sense to me I used to sing “stopped in Charlotte for a quick cup of coffee…” but a couple of years ago I read an article by W.T Lhamon that gave the historical background: in 1961, the bus carrying an interracial group of Freedom Riders made it safely through Virginia and North Carolina, but when it stopped in Rock Hill, South Carolina, John Lewis, one of most effective civil rights warriors of the century, was beaten to the floor of the bus station by a white mob.

Berry recorded this song in 1964, after serving a year and a half in prison on a Mann Act charge — the trial and sentence had stopped him at the height of his professional career, but he emerged to find the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and their British compatriots enthroning him as a founding genius of rock ‘n’ roll. That was a somewhat mixed blessing, since it placed him in a pantheon of past greatness, though he was at his artistic peak.

That’s not to dis his earlier work–I’ve already paid tribute to several of his many masterpieces from the 1950s, “No Money Down,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” and “Memphis.” Berry was one of the most brilliant wordsmiths of the 20th century, on a par with Cole Porter in his ability to conjure perfect rhymes where none had previously existed — and  in a class by himself when it came to making normal speech flow in perfect meter and rhyme, with every word falling in perfect rhythm and witty bits of assonance, alliteration, and internal rhymes giving every line a unique verve and snap. Great as his early songs were, he hit a new level with this one and “Nadine,” and for effortless manipulation of language, there’s nothing that touches them.

It’s the little stuff, and it’s everywhere:
The t’s in “Right away I bought me a through train ticket.”
The internal rhymes: “that hound broke down and left us all stranded…”
The assonance and alliteration: “Sure as you’re born they bought me a silk suit, set of luggage in my hand.”

Until I did some research for this post, I also credited this song with giving the phrase “cool your jets” to the English language… but just checked and found that Berry actually sings “cool your wings.” Ah, well… I’m sticking with jets, and still like to think he sang it that way, even if not on the record.

Finally, I have a thing about songs that use the old telephone exchanges: I did “LOnesome 7-7203” a few hundred songs back, and here we’ve got TIdewater 4-1009. If you don’t know what a telephone exchange was, or why the second letter is capitalized, ask any American of sufficient age, and they’ll bore you with stories of their long-departed youth. My childhood phone number was UNiversity 8-7748, appropriate for a kid growing up a few blocks from Harvard Square.

Addenda: After I posted this, Andy Schwartz pointed out some further parallels between the song lyrics and that Freedom Ride:

We had motor trouble, it turned into a struggle halfway across Alabam’ / And that ‘hound broke down and left us all stranded in downtown Birmingham…”

Upon arrival in Birmingham, the bus was attacked by a mob of KKK members aided and abetted by police under the orders of Commissioner Bull Connor. As the riders exited the bus, they were beaten by the mob with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains

Right away I bought me a through train ticket, ridin’ ‘cross Mississippi clean / And I was on that Midnight Flyer out of Birmingham, smokin’ into New Orleans…
Greyhound clerks in Montgomery AL said the bus drivers were refusing to drive any Freedom Riders anywhere. Recognizing that their efforts had already called attention to the cause and wanting to make the rally in New Orleans, the Riders decided to abandon the rest of the bus ride and fly directly to New Orleans from Birmingham.