The greatest artists offer a reflection for a nation to see itself and its time, and Chuck Berry, a beautician by trade, knew a thing or two about holding up a mirror for a customer. His most famous song, “Johnny B. Goode,” is a classic story of the American dream: A poor, uneducated boy from the sticks uses his ability to make a guitar ring like a bell to make good—or so the listener is left to assume, though Berry left the ending notably ambiguous.
But Berry, unlike his protagonist, didn’t grow up in log-cabin rural squalor—he was a middle-class African American from segregated urban St. Louis. It is another of his compositions, using nearly the same opening riff—and when you write a lick that good, why not reuse it?—that demonstrates Berry’s ability to depict post-war America so convincingly.
The singer in “Promised Land” is, like the guitar-slinging Goode, a young man on the make. Starting off from home in Norfolk, Virginia, in a Greyhound, the singer wants to make it to California to make his name. The song is an atlas of America—great cities like New Orleans and Atlanta crop up, but so do smaller ones like Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like his contemporaries the Beat Poets, the singer is determined to travel, but unlike them he does not have the tendency toward (nor, perhaps, the privilege of) shiftlessness. When the 'hound breaks down in Alabama, he hops a train—but he’s riding in style, not jumping a freight like Neal Cassady. Family members in Houston buy him a silk suit and an airplane ticket, and by the time he reaches California, he’s tucking into a T-bone steak on a jet airplane. With each new, fancier mode of transportation—bus, then train, then airliner—his horizons grow in tandem with a nation whose own future seemed limitless. (Berry was also closely attuned to that essential 1950s American preoccupation, the automobile, obsessively cataloging makes and models in other tunes.)