Back In The U.S.A.
Chuck Berry’s classic rock’n’roll song could be our national anthem, and a perfect way to celebrate July Fourth.
The Fourth of July is like Christmas. Both are fraught with meaning and few agree on just what that meaning is. It’s more an argument than a holiday at times. The ones who take a break from wrapping themselves in the flag to wave it on this particular day want to claim ownership and see anyone with a complex or hopeful view of our country as unpatriotic. But I love the Fourth and I love my country just as much as anyone on either side of the Fox News screen.
Still, I would enjoy this holiday more if it featured a little less noise, a little more reflection and a parade with Chuck Berry at the head. His song Back In The USA is my personal national anthem. I’m not actively lobbying for it, but it certainly makes me proud in a way the shamelessly jingoistic, Proud To Be an American, by Nashville’s worst, Lee Greenwood, never will. (In my fantasy parade, you will find Mr. Greenwood all the way to the rear with a shovel doing his civic duty.)
Back to Chuck and his uniquely American story. Anyone familiar with St. Louis’ favorite son will agree that many things in his biography are bound to keep him out of public office. He not only sang about teenagers, he transported at least one across state lines for immoral purposes. The fact that she was white and he wasn’t insured a harsh sentence. The author of this happy ode to all things American was treated poorly in his homeland. He came out of prison diminished in reputation, a pariah to mainstream society and more than likely, if you follow reports, a bitter and private man.
But that’s later on in the story. In the 1950s, a much better time for Mr. Berry, he was the undisputed King of Rock and Roll. He owned the charts, wrote the best songs, played the meanest guitar, looked as sharp as a human being could and invented and mastered one of the greatest stage moves ever, the duck walk. He influenced The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. Anyone worth their salt on guitar had no choice but to learn the intro to Johnny B Goode. There was nobody bigger, smarter or funnier. He was the very definition of that degraded term, singer/songwriter, doing both at a level few today can imagine.
His lyrics were as clever ever and the American as any heard before or since. Celebrating a simple life of jukeboxes and after-school dancing, he drank, like the characters in his songs, nothing stronger than Coca-Cola. There was innocence and optimism abounding in songs like C’est La Vie, a somehow lovable paean to teenage marriage. In that song, Chuck invents a word, coolerator, that by itself, should be given the Pulitzer Prize. The charming lyrics to our featured number could have come directly from a character in a Norman Rockwell painting:
Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today,
We just touched ground on an international runway
Jet propelled back home, from over the seas to the U. S. A.
New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge
Let alone just to be at my home back in ol’ St. Lou.
Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?
From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U. S. A.
Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a juke-box jumping with records like in the U.S.A.
Well, I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the U.S.A.
Yes. I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the U.S.A.
Anything you want, we got right here in the U.S.A.
© Chuck Berry
The Great American Novel may not have been written yet, but this is a strong contender in the song category. Gratitude reigns where you might expect bluster. It’s patriotic without the martial beat of our hard-to-sing national anthem. It’s a song about peace, fun, hamburgers, cities, and rock’n’roll. If he was writing it today, I’d like to think the line about freeways might not be in there, but this was the jet-age and they were new. Speeding across the country in a coffee-colored Cadillac, Chuck Berry was in his prime and enjoying his freedom.
On Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day and The Fourth, we celebrate our long military history. Jets fly and fireworks bang. The sacrifices made to keep us safe and free are, beyond a doubt, laudable. So many died to insure our rights, we should at least make sure everybody shares equally, regardless of race, creed or other coincidence of birth. We also need to exercise and celebrate the most important one, freedom of speech. Chuck Berry certainly did and the joy he created overflowed our borders and engulfed the world. It doesn’t always take force to conquer the world — sometimes all you need is some insanely great American Rock and Roll. Happy Fourth and thank you Chuck!