Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Cold War Beginnings: Chuck Berry

Well, I'm so glad I'm living in the U.S.A.
Yes. I'm so glad I'm living in the U.S.A.
Anything you want, we got right here in the U.S.A.

           Chuck Berry, being an African American artist in the late 1950s and early 1960s defied the odds and made a mark on the music, and on the culture, of American life. In that, he truly appreciated life in the U.S. as revealed by his lyrics in "Back in the U.S.A." released in 1959. Chuck Berry was born in St. Louis in the late 1920’s and grew up in a lower middle class African American family. Although he escaped the rural poverty that was prevalent in the blues music of the black artists, he had a true love of this music. Berry wrote “Ida Red”, a “countrified blues song” and attempted to record it at the Chess brothers’ studio in Chicago. After reshaping this song into a “rhythmical rock and roll” style,” Maybelline” became a national hit reaching number five on the charts in 1955. Berry attempted to release a few other bluesy style songs, unsuccessfully, and he, therefore, began to write songs that appealed directly to the white teenage record-buying audience and became a very successful early rock and roller.

            Although Berry’s success in the late 1950’s was short lived due to his prison term, Berry broke ground in the rock and roll world, tearing down racial barriers and appealing to white audiences. Berry was the first African American rock and roller to get white airplay with “Maybelline” due to his carefully enunciated lyrics allowing him to pass for white in a strictly segregated society. Berry knew how to appeal to the white teenage world, and specifically targeted them in his music, making his appeal to a larger unsegregated audience. Berry’s musical style was also new, basically defining rock and roll with his unprecedented compositions of blues beats, country runs, and humorous lyrics. Berry’s influences can be heard in many artists who came after him, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan.

           But our focus here is on the patriotism of the lyrics, of which Berry was an early example leading into the Vietnam conflict, when it seemed that most of the public supported any efforts the U.S. made in combating Communism. Chuck Berry's lyrics in "Back in the U.S.A." ooze with patriotism and pride for the United States. This is not surprising if we place Berry's song within the socio-political context in which it was written - The Cold War. In this context, America was competing with the Soviet Union in all aspects, and in that regard, America was encouraging its citizens to believe that the United States was the best in the world.  America offered be best of everything including the simple things, as Berry shows us, like drive-ins, jukeboxes, and sizzling hamburgers. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame credits Berry with appealing to the masses and appreciating life in the United States:
During this high-spirited decade [of the 1950s], Berry hailed America as a land of fun and opportunity. The mid-Fifties was a period of rising prosperity for the growing middle class, and the social landscape was slowly improving for African-Americans as the civil rights era dawned. In the lyrics for “Back in the U.S.A.,” written after returning from an Australian tour, Berry saluted such everyday pleasures as the drive-ins and corner cafes “where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day/Yeah, and a jukebox jumping with records like in the U.S.A.”
           Berry's lyrics are a perfect example of those that promoted Americanism and set up the United States citizens to fully back its country in all affairs both foreign and domestic, especially when these affairs furthered democratic ideologies by preventing the spread of the feared Communism that appeared to be taking over Asia. But not all songs penned during this time promoted American patriotism, which we shall explore further in our next post.

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