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.

            Berry made the first borrowing that I know of on his under-appreciated 1979 album Rockit, on its closing song, “Pass Away,” a rhymed narrative poem that Berry recited over moody, bluesy instrumental backing. A melancholy meditation on the ephemerality of all things – which, in George Harrison’s phrase, must pass – the recording isn’t like anything else anybody was doing in 1979, and it’s great.  

             Berry had credited the song to himself, and it wasn’t until 2016 that I learned that the lyric of “Pass Away” had been published in 1867 by a white abolitionist poet named Theodore Tilton, who had titled it, “Even This Shall Pass Away.” Berry recited it for journalist Peter Guralnick, who had not recognized that Berry had recorded it more than 35 years before – and none of the editors at Rolling Stone magazine, where Guralnick published the account, noticed it either. Berry told Guralnick that he had learned the poem from his father, who used to recite it. “That’s my dad,” Chuck told Guralnick. “I get a little choked up when I think of him.” The Berry family, like many African American families, had loved poetry: Chuck’s parents had named his older brother after the great African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar had been his mother’s favorite; come to think of it, Chuck told Guralnick, Dunbar was his favorite too. People recited Dunbar poems at home, at parties, and sometimes on the professional stage for decades after his death in 1906. He was a lot of people’s favorite.

Guralnick noted that Berry had often closed his concerts with “Even This Shall Pass Away” – the closing song on Rockit. There’s no way that a Rolling Stone writer covering Dylan or any of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones would not have recognized a song that the artist had released in 1979.  

“Pass Away” was neither the first nor the last time that Berry recited a lyric on record. In 1971 he recorded “My Dream,” a six-minute reverie on the idea of a quiet, retired life in the country, where he could play music and lament a lost love. He returned to poetry on Chuck, his next studio album after Rockit, which didn’t come until thirty-eight years later, shortly after his death at age 90 in 2017. Berry recited on Chuck’s last two songs, the sardonic tale “Dutchman” and the calm philosophical meditation “Eyes of Man.”

The songs are marvels. Taken as a pair, they present a deeply paradoxical vision of the old age of an artist, whose life figures as an archetypal human life. In the first, to a medium-slow 4/4 bluesy accompaniment in a heavier rock style than I’ve heard on any other Berry track, a disheveled man enters a bar hoping to cadge a drink from strangers. Most of the regulars insult him, but he succeeds in his quest when a mysteriously identified “Dutchman” agrees to buy him one. His benefactor asks how he came to be in such a bedraggled state. The beggar tells his tale. He had been a successful musician, having written a song that sounds like a description of “Johnny B. Goode,” which had met with success, and he had lost everything when he fell in love with a woman who did not return his affections. At the end of the recitation, Chuck is speaking the role of the beggar in the first person. He sounds utterly broken and defeated as he finishes his tale, concluding with the pathetic plea, “Hey, Dutchman, you promised me a drink.”

“Eyes of Man” takes a somewhat more valedictory view of Chuck’s artistic achievements, describing the acclaim that an accomplished artist receives, the compliment that his work will last forever. But the valediction is undercut when Berry makes the traditional observation that nothing made by humans lasts forever, echoing similar remarks made by the likes of Shakespeare (in The Sonnets), Shelley (in “Ozymandias”), and Lincoln (in the Gettysburg Address – “people will little note nor long remember”). Berry contrasts the ephemerality of art with the deathless continuation of life that “woman” brings forth, with effort and struggle that are seldom witnessed by the “eyes of man.” Berry recites with a deep sympathy and acceptance, the last words of an old man who knew it would be the last song on his last record, over a hearty, medium-tempo 6/8 beat with melodious slide guitar licks heavily fuzzed with grandeur. It sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard.

As with the earlier “My Dream,” the vocabulary and imagery of “Dutchman” seem to me to be more related to Berry’s other lyrics than does “Pass Away.” I wouldn’t be surprised, though, to learn that either poem has a literary source. “Eyes of Man” has a literary source. Berry took the spoken, unrhymed interludes between the song’s rhymed stanzas from an unrhymed piece called “He Who Knows,” which I came across in the 1936 collection, The Best Loved Poems of the American People, which is still in print. The collection’s editor, Hazel Felleman, did not know the author’s identity and attributed it as, “Persian Proverb.” She did not give a source. (Felleman’s collection is a wondrous cornucopia, gathered from her fifteen years of working in the editorial department of the New York Times, where she had the job of responding to readers’ written requests for information about poems. The book collects 575 of the poems that she looked up for readers.)

The text of “He Who Knows” as Felleman printed it:

             


              He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool, shun him;
              He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a child, teach him.
              He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep, wake him.
              He who knows, and knows that he knows, is wise, follow him.

             

Berry’s version omits the gender identification and makes them plural, saying, “Those who know not,” and so on. He changes most of the ending instructions. “Shun him” becomes “avoid them”; “teach him” becomes “adopt them”; “follow him” becomes “appreciate them.” Only the instruction verb, “wake,” remains the same.

I have not seen a source for the rest of the “Eyes of Man.” I would guess that Berry invented it, but it wouldn’t surprise to me to learn that he had adapted it or quoted it from another writer, probably long dead.

Berry’s occasional wholesale adoption of literary sources for his songs allies him with his most celebrated follower, Bob Dylan, who has drawn a lot of attention for doing the same thing. Most Dylan scholarship comes from amateurs who study Dylan and track down his sources out of love and fandom. Berry scholarship lags because he lacks the devoted fan base. Much of his work remains under-examined. I won’t predict that future scholars are certain to find more literary sources for Berry’s lyrics, though that outcome wouldn’t surprise me either. All I know is that the lyrics would reward much more analysis and study than they have received.

              * * * * *

Guralnick’s ignorance of Rockit shouldn’t surprise: rock critics and historians have by-and-large ignored Berry’s work after 1964, despite its continued excellence and fecundity as a source of inspiration for other musicians. Rockit had been out of print for many years and was only rereleased in 2017.

            Still, Rockit’s neglect mystifies, given that Berry released it during one of rock’s periodic Roots Revival moments. In the mid-‘70s, Bob Seger and Steve Miller had Top 40 hits playing 1970s versions of Berry’s style; a Top 50 hit of Seger’s paid Berry the ultimate homage, when he, accurately, called rock musicians and fans “all Chuck’s children.” Prominent albums from the years immediately before and after Rockit featured obscure Berry tunes. Dave Edmunds’s 1978 entrée, Tracks on Wax 4, had a ’60s Berry gem, “It’s My Own Business.” George Thorogood’s breakthrough album Move It on Over, from the same year, had another ‘60s Berry winner, “It Wasn’t Me.” 1980’s widely heralded Seconds of Pleasure, the only album Rockpile (Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Billy Bremner, and Terry Williams – the band on Tracks on Wax 4) released under its group name, covered an instant Berry classic. “Oh What a Thrill.” From Rockit.

            Rockit didn’t get bad reviews, but it didn’t get raves, and, unlike Edmunds’ and Rockpile’s records, it didn’t make the Village Voice’s industry-standard Pazz & Jop year-end list. (Move It on Over didn’t either, which surprised me when I looked it up.) It got less radio play than Edmunds’, Rockpile’s, or Thorogood’s efforts.

            Unlike Rockpile’s and Thorogood’s work, Rockit breaks new ground, if only on a “Pass Away” and a couple of other songs. Berry kept the songs of Rockit mostly in his patented style, with his characteristic bottom-swinging boogie-rockin’ rhythm, at once chunky and lithe, with his individualistic sense of swing, and his deft narrative concision and silver-tongued wit. He brought back the free-ranging, joyously improvisatory boogie-woogie pianist Johnnie Johnson from his earliest recordings. The rhythm section is solid pro, with Jim Marsala and Bob Wray alternating on bass and Nashville session titan Kenneth Buttrey on drums. The guitar sound has a highly-processed ‘70s sheen that doesn’t recall his ‘50s and ‘60s glory years and feels like a not-completely successful attempt at rapprochement with the prevailing ‘70s style. Chuck double-tracks most of the vocals, frequently harmonizing with himself, in another swerve away from the more rootsy approach of Dave Edmunds and George Thorogood.

            With the exceptions of “Pass Away” and an excellent slow blues, “I Need You Baby,” Rockit’s songs are mid-tempo to up-tempo rockers. The rockers include remakes of two older songs, “It Wasn’t Me” (the tune that Thorogood had covered the year before) and “Havana Moon.” Chuck retitles the former, using an approximation of vernacular speech, “It Wuden’t Me,” and rewrites the lyrics, making them an explicit protest against racial oppression that cites police violence and the KKK. “I Never Thought” cites police violence against Black people as well. Earlier in his career, Berry’s racial commentaries had been more implied and hinted at, as on “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and “Promised Land.” As great as the earlier songs are, the new, more direct, commentaries represent a fascinating departure and make for terrific songs themselves.

             Move It On Over, Tracks on Wax 4, and Seconds of Pleasure sported excellent repertoire and terrific bands, but they can’t touch Rockit. The rootsy approach has always simplified the music of its inspiration, and Thorogood and Rockpile were no exceptions. So much more happens musically on any Rockit track than Berry’s rock disciples chose to or were able to manage. Johnnie Johnson’s constant piano fills and licks add layers of complexity that ties Berry’s music to one of his idols, Muddy Waters, and to the polyphony of the blues that the writer James Weldon Johnson had noted way back in 1922. Rock’s blues-roots revivalists, from the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds to Thorogood and Rockpile to Jack White, seldom if ever attempt to recreate the blues polyphony that contributes so beautifully to the musical richness and excitement of so many of Muddy Waters’s – and many of Berry’s – recordings. The Rolling Stones didn’t begin to approach that richness of musical texture until the 1970s, when they had stopped trying to sound like Berry.

            Berry’s discretion in reciting, rather than singing, the poem he retitled “Pass Away” shines through in comparison to another rock adaptation of Theodore Tilton’s poem. In 2010, Robert Plant closed his album Band of Joy with his version of the same poem. Unlike Chuck, Plant sang it. It isn’t nearly as effective as Berry’s recitation. Singing narrative verses requires precise focus and nuance from the singer; Guthrie and Berry were masters in their ability to draw listeners in to hang on every word; Dylan still is. Plant has occasionally shown ability with this, as on “Stairway to Heaven.” But he doesn’t display it on “Even This Shall Pass Away.” Berry always draws us in.

            He was, to paraphrase words that he quoted, one who knew, and knew that he knew.

****

*Originally I wrote “inventor” instead of “master,” but Elijah Wald wrote to point out that Chuck credited Carl Hogan of Louis Jordan’s band with coming up with the lick. I had read that Berry had been influenced by Hogan, but not to this degree. I went and looked for the lick; it’s on one version (but not all versions) of Jordan’s “Ain’t that Just Like a Woman.” It’s essentially the opening 4 bars of the “Johnny B. Goode” solo, but played on single strings, not double-stopped, as Chuck played it. Hogan’s melodic lick is tasty; Chuck’s double stops made it a classic. No matter how many times he used the opening 2 bars, he always, to my knowledge, played the double-stops. Elijah agreed that Berry improved the lick. I thank him for calling Hogan’s earlier, significantly different version of it to my attention.

*****

Addendum: I recommend Peter Guralnick’s interview with Berry. In addition to Berry talking about getting choked up thinking about his dad, there’s video of him reciting “Even This Shall Pass Away,” with acoustic guitar accompaniment by Robbie Robertson. Check it out.

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