23. Promised Land
Written & Performed by Chuck Berry
Recorded February 25, 1964, Chess Studios, Chicago
Chess 7 inch single [US] 1964 & Chuck Berry - St. Louis to Liverpool [Chess CD 2004]



I left my home in Norfolk Virginia,
California on my mind.
Straddled that Greyhound, rode him past Raleigh,
On across Caroline.
Stopped in Charlotte and bypassed Rock Hill,
And we never was a minute late.
We was ninety miles out of Atlanta by sundown,
Rollin' 'cross the Georgia state.
We had motor trouble it turned into a struggle,
Half way 'cross Alabam,
And that 'hound broke down and left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham.
Straight off, I bought me a through train ticket,
Ridin’ cross Mississippi clean
And I was on that midnight flyer out of Birmingham
Smoking into New Orleans.
Somebody help me get out of Louisiana
Just help me get to Houston town.
There’s people there who care a little 'bout me
And they won't let the poor boy down.
Sure as you're born, they bought me a silk suit,
Put luggage in my hands,
And I woke up high over Albuquerque
On a jet to the promised land.
Workin' on a T-bone steak a la carte
Flying over to the Golden State;
The pilot told me in thirteen minutes
We'd be headin' in the terminal gate.
Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone;
Cut your engines, cool your wings,
And let me make it to the telephone.
Los Angeles give me Norfolk Virginia,
Tidewater four ten O nine
Tell the folks back home this is the Promised Land callin'
And the poor boy's on the line.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Reverse migration two.

By spring 1959 Chuck Berry was doing quite well for himself in the recording business. Since signing to Chicago’s Chess Records Berry had scored hits in the rhythm and blues and pop charts and found himself a new audience of young white teenagers who identified with his songs about growing up, being young, discovering love, sex, speed and freedom, and celebrating the very music that provided the soundtrack to being a teenager – a phenomena which was as new as rock and roll itself. It was a good time to be Chuck Berry. He’d been on tour with fellow rock and roll pioneers Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly, he’d starred in movies, and had made enough money to by some land and purchase a nightclub, Club Bandstand, a racially integrated nightclub in a segregated part of his hometown, St Louis. At thirty-three years old Charles Edward Berry had finally arrived.

Then it all fell apart. One account has it that it began with a woman named Janice. Berry met Janice Escalanti after a gig in Texas. She worked for a few weeks at Berry’s club but this doesn’t appear to have lasted long because, and here we quote our source [because we’re not sure where Berry fits in with these events], Chuck Berry Biography, by Bruce Pegg at http://departments.colgate.edu: ‘[…] after soliciting for several nights at a local hotel, [Escalanti] called the Yuma police to find a way to get home. The call led to charges of violating the Mann Act - transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. A first trial, in which Berry was found guilty, was overturned after the judge was found to have uttered racist remarks; a second trial in October 1961 arrived at the same verdict, however, and Berry was sentenced to 3 years in jail and a $10, 000 fine.’

Berry started his prison sentence in February 1962. But as his personal fortunes were bouncing off rock bottom Berry’s music was being discovered by a new generation of musicians – in California by the Beach Boys, and in Britain by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Not that Berry had been idle with the music himself. While in prison he wrote the song that would convey the essence and optimism of the 20th century African American migrant experience and seal his place as the first poet of rock and roll, Promised Land.

With Promised Land Berry showed it was possible to present the scale of the American urban landscape through the language, rhythm and speed, of rock and roll, to imagine a map of America drawn along the lines made by the black experience of mass movement rather than the fault-lines created by the country’s racial divide.

The theme of the song is the great migration of African Americans from the segregated south to the open skies of the north and, in this case, the west coast, the promised land of California. The young man in the song was one of thousands who made that journey between 1916 and 1964, when Berry recorded the song: in subsequent versions by other artists the young black man would become a democratic figure, the subject of countless retellings of real or imagined migrant journeys across America: a Cajun from New Orleans, a white kid from Memphis, a group of west coast folkies turned psychedelic troubadours.

It is with Promised Land that rock and roll tells us that it can be as big and as clever and potentially all inclusive as America itself, that you could fit thousands of square miles into two and half minutes of song, and in that brief eruption of noise, sex, senselessness, soul and space, you could seduce America into discovering itself, reinventing itself, losing itself, and in the process becoming something else, something new.

The rhythmic force of the music hurls its protagonist into the future, toward California, guaranteeing the song its place in the zeitgeist. The force of historic events compels the song’s protagonist backward, retracing his journey back to the south, even as it makes of the song an aide to memory of a time that has now passed. By the end of the century African Americans were abandoning the northern states for the south. They were also leaving California. A document by William H. Frey for the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy titled The New Great Migration: Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965–2000 [2004] reported that California had, by end of the century, become the main source for migration from places like South Central L.A, back to the ‘New South,’ to the new black metropolis of Atlanta, to North Carolina, Houston, Memphis.

Here is an excerpt from the report’s concluding remarks:

This analysis of Census 2000 migration data documents the full-scale reversal of black Americans’ migration out of the South—a movement that dominated the better part of the 20th century. Moreover, the latest census is the first to show that the South experienced a net migration gain of blacks from the other three regions of the country. Overall, the South’s gains over the 1995–2000 period roughly doubled those recorded in the 1990 census, and tripled those recorded in the 1980 census.

Both economic and cultural factors help account for this long-term reversal of the ‘Great Migration.’ The economic ascendancy of Southeastern states such as Georgia, Florida, Virginia, and the Carolinas made them primary destinations for black migrants to the region in recent decades. Texas, too, stands out for its continued appeal to black migrants. Improvements in the racial climate in these states over the past three decades helped create momentum for the return south, as many black Americans sought to strengthen ties to kin and to communities from which they and their forebears departed long ago.

And here is an excerpt from an interview which gives a first hand account of the reasons for California’s reverse migration. It’s by Los Angeles Times staff reporter Mark Arax and he was talking with Noella Buchanan, a pastor at the Community African Methodist Episcopal Church in Corona, who was thinking seriously of going back. We were wondering whether the pastor would be around the same age as the young man in Chuck Berry’s song might be at the end of the century – past retirement age, at least, and maybe longing for some stillness and quiet:

‘We came out to California to find gold, and many of us found it. But when it's time to retire, there's this desire to go back home. Even the children who grew up in California are feeling the pull. They're heading off to black colleges in Atlanta and North Carolina and staying there. Let's face it. Everything is crazy here. The traffic is crazy, the housing prices are crazy. They're finding a slower pace of life in the South. Out here, we're the forgotten minority. Back there, we're the chosen minority.’




Chuck Berry Biography, by Bruce Pegg http://www.CBBiography.html

Centre on Urban and Metropolitan Policy The New Great Migration: Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965–2000, by William H. Frey

In a Reverse Migration, Blacks Head to New South California, other regions lose African Americans feeling the pull of 'home' and a slower pace,
by Mark Arax, Times Staff Writer, L.A Times http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-migration24may24.story

Posted by gc, administrator of Dallas Fort Worth Urban Forum – The Great Reverse Migration 05-31-2004



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