Editor’s note: This commentary is by Robby Porter, of East Montpelier, a self-employed woodworker and owner of small hydroelectric projects. More of his essays and samples of his books are at robbyporter.com.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
When I’m despairing, the future almost despising, and I need to remember what makes America great, I turn to Linda, Chuck and Keith. It’s all here in three minutes of YouTube, where Linda Ronstadt sings Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA.” It is a buoyant synopsis of the best version of 1950s America with hamburgers, drive-ins, long freeways, skyscrapers and jukeboxes.
A woman of Mexican ancestry leads the performance, singing a song written by a black man about how happy he is to be back in the USA, his country, and they are backed up by an immigrant.
The rhythm of the song could match Shakespeare, but there is nothing subtle about the lyrics. That’s perfect, because it is American verse and unlike the witty and reserved English, we’ve always been rough-hewn and exuberant.
Even though Ronstadt owns it completely with her voice, the song unmistakably belongs to Chuck Berry — “New York, Los Angeles, oh how I yearned for you.” Who else writes a lyric like that? But wait, there’s more. Keith Richards is playing guitar and singing backup vocals.
It is easy to dismiss the song’s cheerful lyrics as whitewashing of real problems — “… searching for a corner cafe where hamburgers sizzle on an open griddle night and day.” After all, when the song came out in 1959, segregation was still the law in parts of the country, and a dark-skinned person like Berry would have been searching for a cafe that didn’t have a “whites only” sign.
The 1950s have a special place in American nostalgia, especially for light-skinned Americans. Nearly continuous and rapid economic growth started in the 1950s and continued through the ‘60s. Unlike the last 40 years, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a lot of the increasing national wealth went to the middle class, which was mostly white, but also included, albeit within the confines of segregation, many African-American families like Chuck Berry’s.
But dismissing the song’s optimism misses what is great about it and what is great about America. We have always been a country of promise — promise betrayed and withheld but also promise realized — and ahead of us, always, the promise that we can do better. The core of our greatness is optimism, the belief that we can make things better, embodied by millions of immigrants convinced that here, their future could be better than their past, and embodied nowhere more deeply than in the prisoner immigrants, fighting from slavery against impossible odds, still fighting toward the promise of equality.
Does it matter that Chuck Berry, in a male power move, opened the song in a different key than he and Rondstadt had agreed to and she had to sing in a register that was difficult for her and was so angry that she stormed out after the performance? Does it matter that Keith Richards and Chuck Berry quarreled and almost came to blows? Does it matter that in his life Chuck Berry had numerous run-ins with the law including assaulting women and would certainly be “cancelled” in today’s culture?
Yes it does, in the most profound way. It’s the sad reality, just as it is sad but true that we are a country founded on slavery and displacing the native Americans. But it is also why the performance leaves me rich in hope. We are the messy creation of different people coming together, like the performance of a song, following and improvising on the lyrics laid down in the founding documents. There are bad lyrics and wrong notes and the consequences and the pain that follow from them matter, especially for the people they hurt. But the performance goes on and we keep trying to make the song better. The phrase “a more perfect union” implies an ongoing project.
Chuck Berry is right, not just in his optimism but also in his syllogism. He’s an American. Americans have comfortable middle-class lives with access to hamburgers and long freeways. Therefore he has access to a middle-class life. Skin color shouldn’t matter. No one should be poor, hungry or cold in a country this rich, that’s part of the modern American promise. It is a broken promise for many Americans. It was a broken promise for Berry when he wrote about that “open griddle,” since at the time some of those restaurants would have been closed to him. But his optimism and the optimism of millions of other Americans moved us to a better place with respect to civil rights.
There is a long way to go. The frustrations of our democracy are many, but, like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth, the song of the American Experiment is one of optimism for a future we can make better.