The Promised Land by Chuck Berry is a swooping, driving, head-on journey across America, well, not across as the crow or even a direct flight would take you, but down the South-east from Norfolk Virginia, through Texas and up to Los Angeles. The names of states and towns stud the song as we track the journey of the poor boy from Virginia who leaves home to find the rich life of California.
Chuck Berry wrote the song in 1964 when he was in prison. He traced the journey with the aid of an atlas, the use of which he was originally denied because it was thought he would use it to plan an escape. Which, of course, is what he did, but the escape Chuck describes in the song is from the metaphorical prison of poverty and lack of opportunity.
The pace of the song mirrors the urgency of the journey. There’s no chorus, no refrains, no time to pause and reflect or enjoy the moment. The lack of detail is part of the song’s power.
Brief words and phrases give us the colour of what’s going on and hint at the stories they could tell, if only there were time. Poems, short stories, novels, movies could spring from single lines in this song (and probably have).
Riding the Greyhound
Look at how he leaves home. He ‘straddled’ the Greyhound, ‘rode’ him through Raleigh and the Carolinas. Wow, this is a boy with some attitude, owning that bus like a rodeo rider.
He is hyper-aware of distance and time — they are never a minute late, a brief stop in Charlotte, on they go, out of Atlanta by the time the sun goes down, halfway across Alabama — then bam, the bus breaks down. They are all stranded, off the bus in downtown Birmingham.
In another story, we might move into the world of cheap motels and seedy dives, but no, he is out of there. He has some money, and ‘straight off’ buys a straight-through train ticket on the midnight flyer to New Orleans.
A little help from his friends
This is where the story becomes tantalisingly vague. His next step is to travel from Louisiana to Texas, and it seems he needs a little help to do this. Has he used up all his money? Who helps him? And why?
Anyway, he gets the fare and finds his friends in Houston. These are people who ‘care a little about me’, and he is confident they won’t let this poor boy down. Are they family, we wonder? And how can he be so sure?
But he’s right, they do the business, and he leaves Houston with a silk suit, some luggage (you imagine it might be a bit flashy) and a plane ticket. You can see the transformation taking place.
On the plane, 13 minutes out of Los Angles, he’s ‘workin’ on a T-bone steak a la carte’, a line which just nails the sense of the good life he’s seeking.
Then the descent, described in wonderful elegiac phrases. ‘Swing low sweet chariot’ he urges the plane, the words of the old American spiritual underlining the emotional weight of this journey, as our poor boy crosses his Jordan to enter the land flowing with milk and honey.
And what’s the first thing he does? He rushes to a telephone and tells the folks back home that he’s made it. Their poor boy is on the line, calling from ‘the promised land’, the only mention of the phrase in the song’s title.
The incantation of the phone number, Tidewater four ten o nine, is one of the precise details which gives the song its power. It forms a link across the country, from Virginia to California, and we understand something of what he feels as he recites the familiar number which belongs to a life already old.
We wonder how the promised land will treat this country boy. He’s got the swagger, the grit, the determination to succeed. He has friends in Houston he can call on, possibly, if he gets into trouble. We hope he won’t get into trouble, but, hey, he’s Chuck Berry. Anything could happen.
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