He Who Knew

Everybody agrees that Chuck Berry was the master* of rock ‘n’ roll’s most defining guitar lick and the writer of five or six (or thirty) of its foundational songs. But he doesn’t get enough credit as a lyricist or a recording artist. That he borrowed some of his lyrics from long dead, little-known poets only makes him more interesting.

            True as the consensus assessment regarding Chuck Berry might be, it doesn’t come close to the scope of his achievement. One of rock’s greatest lyricists – perhaps its very greatest – he has sometimes felt so strongly about his lyrics that he has recited rather than sung them. Reciting poetry had been a mainstay of popular American culture in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Berry, by his own account, was part of that tradition. And sometimes, like his follower Bob Dylan, he presented other people’s words as his own.

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