Chuck Berry and the Invention of Rock and Roll

In the mid-90s, when I was in my forties, a friend of mine, the late political theorist Jean Elshtain, came to deliver a talk at the university at which I was teaching and hung out for a few days at my house. We talked  gossiped, talked about politics and, as we frequently about music. At that time I was well into jazz and didn’t much listen to contemporary pop or what had become of rock music. But Jean was a still a rocker who loved Bruce, whose music I knew, and a bunch of others whose music was new to me.

She asked me if I had been into jazz when I was a teenager. I said, “yes, but rock was what really moved me, then.” She seemed a little surprised. “Rock is the music of angry teenagers and I was an angry teenager,” I replied.

I was thinking about last week. I had been sick for a few days and had to drive somewhere. So put on some music that I knew would give me some energy, a live Jefferson Airplane album that begins with the song “Volunteers.” It worked and for a moment I felt revved up. And defiant, the way I felt when, sitting in my basement in my parents’ house I would sometimes turn up the volume right before the line “Up against the wall, motherfuckers.” I was so revved up by the music that I started feeling better and was really looking forward to do some writing and speaking in defense of the ACA. I kept that moment in my mind when I wrote a post about health care and when  I made  some speeches in defense of the ACA later that week.

And then I heard Chuck Berry died.

Chuck didn’t invent the music that became rock and roll. It had too many other sources—T-Bone Walker, Professor Longhair, Little Richard, Ike Turner, Bill Haley, and others. But I think it’s fair to say that Chuck Berry invented the cultural and musical phenomenon of rock and roll. He is the one who pointed the way to what rock came to mean in the 60s and 70s. He was the one who gave the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Beach Boys, Dead, Dylan,  Sly, and many others the outsize ambitions they might never have had without him. For what make rock and roll significant is that it has two, interconnected ambitions, to make great art out of relatively simple musical forms and to express  the anger and frustrated aspirations of the post-adolescent generation, a generation that, despite the models of the flapper and swing generations, was something new in human history in the 1950s and 60s.

If you think about it, those two ambitions are pretty closely linked.

Start with the generational aspirations. It’s been widely noted that a new stage of life was created the twentieth century—or, more accurately, was first made available to large numbers of people in the entity century. That is the stage of life between childhood and adulthood, from say the ages of 13 to 21.

In past times, one went to work at 13 or 14. Ready or not you were an adult and quite quickly had adult responsibilities thrust on you. At the same time had access to adult pleasures. Having both the responsibilities and the pleasures of adult life, you were able to think of yourself as an independent, capable, more or less worldly human being.

Middle class life under capitalism creates a new stage of life, one in which the responsibilities of adulthood are put off—to college graduation at 21 or even later—so that young men and women can complete the education they need to secure middle class careers. This new stage in life, together with the prosperity of the 20th century, gives young men and women a great deal of freedom—to read and listen and see  and reflect on new things; to experiment with different styles of life, to try different kinds of work; to travel, and to be far less responsible than people of that age in past generations while having the minds and bodies of adults. This is new stage of life  gives young people time to dream about what they want their lives to be. And combined with prosperity and freedom, this opportunity to dream generates ambitions of many kinds in young people, both personal and communal. It encourages young people to imagine themselves attaining personal goals that most young people in the past could not have imagined for themselves. And, perhaps more importantly, it encourages young people to imagine a way of life and living together that is different from the life they are accustomed to living. The idealism and political energy of young people is in large part  created by this this new post-adolescent stage of life.

And at the same time, this new stage of life is also one that generates a great deal of frustration. Frustration because, being free of much responsibility for themselves or others also means lacking the opportunity to change the world even in small ways. The outsize ambitions that freedom generates thus comes in conflict with the  inability to realize most of them at least in the near future. And that  also means they people in this stage of life  lacking in the sense of independence and standing that comes with taking with adult responsibilities.

And, of course, they are also missing many of the pleasures that come with adult responsibility, and especially the pleasures of  love and sex. Adults who are envious of the carefree days of this post-adolescent stage of life, tend to imagine it a time of, to use the phrase they also say with envy, “wanton sexuality.” And the young people sometimes think of their own time in the same way. But that’s mainly because human beings almost always think that someone else is getting more than they are. The reality, however, is that the new stage of life is, for most young people most of the time, one of romantic chaos and limited sexual activity. All the contemporary evidence about sexual life today should make us absolutely certain that the average married 19 year old couple in America 1855 not only had a more secure romantic life but also was having far more sex than single 19 year olds in America in 1955. We talked about sex more in the 60s and 70s than young people did a hundred years before us. But that’s partly because most of us weren’t doing it nearly as much as our great-grandparents were at the same age. They were living they life they had long expected to live, were more or less happily married to the kind of person they always expected to be with, and lived at a time when there wasn’t TV and reliable nighttime lighting and not even much work to do on the farm in winter. What do you think they did every night to pass the time?

We, on the other hand were still trying to figure out who and with whom wanted to be. Our ability to imagine alternative futures for ourselves and our personal ambitions made that even harder. All that uncertainty about who we were and might become made our romantic relationships tentative, complicated, and at time chaotic, and for a long period of time. We had no idea what we would do, where we would live, what we wanted to be, and how long it would take to get there. How could we make commitments to romantic partners in our late tends and early twenties. And while that uncertainty did lead to sexual experimentation not available to our great grandparents,  it certainly did not mean we were having more sex than they did. (And, though the  image of it may bother you,  your great grand-parents didn’t just do it in the missionary position either.) One thing our experimentation taught was that, for all the immediate pleasures of sex, doing it without some kind of personal connection was ultimately not very satisfying. And we had plenty of other distractions, and electricity enabled us to work late into the night writing reading books and writing papers.

No wonder we were so frustrated.

One of the ways in which we expressed and assuaged the  frustrations of the post-adolescent stage of life was to throw ourselves into communal and political activity. What we couldn’t attain as individuals, some of us tried to attain through collective action, all the while hoping to catch the eye if not the heart of the cute guy or girl with whom we marched and protested.

This became obvious once protests against the Vietnam war took off. But the political and social aspirations of the 60s generation pre-dated the war. The Port Huron state of 1962 spoke from and to the frustrations of the members of a generation whose idealism and hopes to live a life of personal and communal significance were rushing up against the reality of jobs in corporate America. The urge to escape the “rat-race” and the “boxes” of suburbia generated both the New Left and the hippie movements.

Rock and roll was critical in making that happen. It gave voice to both the frustrations and hopes and dreams of a generation. It made a disparate group of people aware of itself as a generation and self-conscious about its own aspirations.

But to do that, rock and roll had to take itself more seriously than popular music had in the past. It had to recognize that it was important enough to speak for something more than the difficulties of individual life.

Chuck Berry is the one who made that happen.

Rock and roll initially focused on the romantic and sexual frustrations of post-adolescent life. That’s basically what rock and roll was about in its early years. And in that way it was not any different from the popular music of the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. It did draw on the tradition of blues lyrics to address sexual desire, both indirectly and directly, far more than the music of the 1950s (though perhaps not so much more than the music of the 30s which was full of sexual themes and double-entendres). And, the older generation was freaked out by sex they heard in the music (though, of course, they heard it in the music  of the 1930s as well).

Chuck Berry was, of course, part of all that. But what really distinguished his music was not sexuality but its attention to itself.  Berry wrote literate songs that told lovely iconic stories with wit and intelligence. And he wrote songs not just about sex and love but about America and, even more importantly about rock and roll itself. Many of his most famous songs—Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B. Goode, Rock and Roll Music, and Let it Rock—were about the music he and others were creating. Berry took a music that was relatively simple and invested it with significance and weight and ambition. And in doing so, he passed that ambition on to those who followed him—the Stones and Beatles, Hendrix and Sly, Dylan and Costello. And that aspiration affected popular music far beyond rock and roll–the aspiratiosn of Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy–are inconceivable without Chuck Berry, too.

Before Rock and Roll could carry the larger aspirations of a generation, it had to take itself seriously. By investing Rock and Roll with musical significance, Berry made it capable of speaking not only to the personal but the social and political concerns of a generation. Indeed, his songs about rock and roll were not just it about the significance of his music itself but the significance of hismusic as the voice of a generation. Berry, who was older by ten years than most of the people who bought his records, self-consciously made himself their spokesman. In doing so, he encouraged those who followed him to do so as well.

The post-adolescent generation of the late 1950s and the 1960s took individual frustrations—frustration that one by one might have seemed too simple and personal to have a larger resonance—and gave them political and cultural significance and ambitions. Somehow Chuck Berry recognized those ambitions and took a relatively simple music and gave it the seriousness and depth to articulate those ambitions.  The generation would not have recognized itself without a form of music that aspired to be significant. And the music would not have become what it was if it did not seek to speak for the aspirations of that generation.

Chuck Berry may not have invented the particular musical form of rock and roll. But he invented rock and roll as a cultural phenomenon.

Note: One other feature of the 1960s was discussions of music that draw on political sociology tend to get portentous. This is no exception.

The idea for this essay came from two places. Jon Pareles’ obituary of Berry pointed to how one of his main themes was his own music and how he became the voice of a generation. A blog post Tim Hayes wrote, which mentioned  Berry’s ambitions, made me realize that those two thing were connected more deeply than Pareles imagined. I just spelled out a bit what I took from Tim’s essay.


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