Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Music Pioneer: Chuck Berry’s After School Session

Resistance to other people’s self-serving solicitations, whether they involve work, school, or love, is the theme of “Too Much Monkey Business,” and Berry’s guitar rhythms are fast, repetitive, and (now) have the aspect of something classical, as if one were listening to something old and priceless. Berry’s vocal tone is clear, controlled, and expressive of recognition and exasperation. He is a master at what he does.

 

By Daniel Garrett

Chuck Berry
After School Session
Chess/Geffen, 2004

In “Havana Moon,” a song Chuck Berry wrote and sang, and which appears with other songs of his from the mid-to-late 1950s on the After School Session compilation, Chuck Berry sings about an affair between an American girl and an island man, in which he waits for her return, and waiting so long, he drinks, and sleeps through her return, each thinking the other has been untrue, and she takes the boat back to America. The song has a bit of calypso flavoring and a story, sensual and luckless, that might be a blues. “Havana moon, Havana moon, me all alone with jug of rum. Me stand and wait for the boat to come,” he begins. The boat was expected at twelve o’clock, and is late; and the waiting man watches the tide and the moon, thinking of her arrival and his leaving with her for New York, recalling their time together—“she rock and roll, she dance and sing, she hold me tight, she touch me lips, me eyes they close, me heart she flip”—and while drinking, he thinks the American girl has lied. He falls asleep, he is not there to meet her, and she weeps and leaves: he wakes and learns “me love she gone, Havana moon, Havana moon.” It is a simple song: and then again, it’s not: it’s an act of imagination, an imagination that travels.

The collection After School Session gathers “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell),” “Deep Feeling,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Wee Wee Hours,” “Rolli Polli (Roly Poly),” “No Money Down,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Berry Pickin’,” “Together We Will Always Be,” “Havana Moon,” “Down Bound Train,” and “Drifting Heart.” Cheery and observant is “School Day,” a log of a typical youth’s day, with its demands and disciplines, its society and structure, its reveries and refreshments. The musical focus is on Berry’s voice and guitar: the former is light, matter-of-fact, and the latter conveys energy and form. “Deep Feeling” is a melancholy instrumental piece, not quite a blues, and there is something nearly “exotic” about it—atypical (it reminds me, somehow, of something eastern). Resistance to other people’s self-serving solicitations, whether they involve work, school, or love, is the theme of “Too Much Monkey Business,” and Berry’s guitar rhythms are fast, repetitive, and (now) have the aspect of something classical, as if one were listening to something old and priceless. Berry’s vocal tone is clear, controlled, and expressive of recognition and exasperation. He is a master at what he does.

It is odd in “Wee Wee Hours” that Chuck Berry’s voice sounds as it if had been replaced with that of Charles Brown—low, nearly whispery, confiding, sad, as his narrator sits in a small room, and speaks of thinking of a loved one. Berry’s guitar does have the sound, here, of the blues; and pianistic notes are brief, contemplative, tinkling. On many of these songs, Johnnie Johnson plays piano, Willie Dixon bass, and Ebby Hardy drums. “Wee Wee Hours” is followed by the instrumental “Rolli Polli (Roly Poly),” which I imagine could inspire dancing. “No Money Down” has a blues riff and singing that I think B.B. King would approve of, as Chuck Berry sings about a Cadillac sale sign and the offer of no money down with a Ford trade-in, and the song seems a reflection of, and a comment on, a common marketing ploy, with a car as a bargain, and a resource of technology, and a resource for movement. The lasting appeal of a brown eyed handsome man, an idea similar to Howlin’ Wolf’s more sexual “Back Door Man,” is the subject of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” with women’s appreciation of male looks and dependability becoming the song’s celebration. Chuck Berry’s sensibility is comic, social, historical, and romantic, and thus it is widely appealing.

Agile, fun-loving, intelligent, lean, the St. Louis (Missouri) native Charles Edward Anderson Berry, who as of this writing still performs in that city, signed with Chess Records in 1955, and his song “Maybellene” became popular; and the next year he gave the public the anthem “Roll Over Beethoven.” Tours followed for Chuck Berry, as did other songs, his own amusement park, films, a biography, a Grammy lifetime achievement award, and various tributes. The sad thing is how easy it is to lose sight and hearing of such a pioneer. We absorb the experiments and forget the experimenters.

On After School Session, Chuck Berry does something varied with the instrumental “Berry Pickin’,” something dancing and something delicate, a little bluesy, a little rocking, while the romantic ballad “Together We Will Always Be,” a song of rewarded effort, is, in vocal tone, a cross between doo wop and Nat King Cole, supported by percussion and little else. “Havana Moon,” which is next, precedes, “Down Bound Train,” a surrealist tale of spiritual warning; and the collection would close with “Drifting Heart,” a rather cloistered-sounding ballad, possibly too mannered, were it not for three bonus tracks: “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Thirty Days (To Come Back Home),” and “Maybellene.”

With its themes of speed and escape, romance and music, “You Can’t Catch Me” is a song that embodies youth and a certain American spirit. In “Thirty Days,” Berry’s narrator threatens a lover with hoodoo and the law, telling her to come back home in thirty days (if one form of power does not work, maybe the other will). Most famously, Chuck Berry sings, “Maybellene, why can’t you be true? You done started back doing the things you used to do.”

The song that surprised me in the collection, and my favorite, is “Down Bound Train,” which begins, “A stranger, lying on a bar room floor, had drank so much he could drink no more, so he fell asleep with a troubled brain, to dream that he rode on a down bound train.” How far down is the train bound? One clue: “The engine with blood was sweaty and damp, and brilliantly lit with a brimstone lamp, and imps, for fuel, was shoveling bones while the furnace rang with a thousand groans.” What’s more? “The boiler was filled with lots of beer. The devil himself was the engineer, the passengers were most a motley crew.” Berry describes the diverse types who are on a fast train to hell, a trip that becomes more frightening, and more painful, as it nears its destination, until “the stranger awoke with an anguished cry, his clothes wet with sweat and his hair standing high, he fell on his knees on the bar room floor and prayed a prayer like never before.” Chuck Berry, whose mother was a school teacher and father a deacon, has given us a unique drama and he gives us also a moral, letting us know that the man’s prayers were not in vain: even someone who does not believe in divine salvation can see the meaning and use of the story.

Daniel Garrett, a resident of New York, is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. A graduate of the New School for Social Research, and an organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, Daniel Garrett has written work that has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Garrett’s commentaries on books, films, and music have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader for several years; and include as subjects Louis Auchincloss, James Baldwin, Devendra Banhart, Beyonce, Bright Eyes, the Dears, The Devil Wears Prada, The Illusionist,Leela James, The Line of Beauty, Wynton Marsalis, Nietzsche, On the Waterfront, Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture, Private, Alain Resnais, Rocco and His Brothers, Diana Ross,Schultze Gets the Blues, Frank Sinatra, (Michael Winterbottom’s) Tristram Shandy, and Lizz Wright.

Views All Time
Views All Time
785
Views Today
Views Today
2