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Re-Discovering the Promised Land

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I have been a fan of AMG (Allmusic.com) for a long while. It has some wonderful biographical information and generally has some excellent music reviews by artists of all genres. I was web surfing last night and while on Allmusic.com, I was reading a survey by Tom Erlewine (AMG editor) [HERE]. Erlewine listed “Promised Land” by Chuck Berry among the most perfect singles of all time.

I have always considered the song among Berry’s best (and that is saying someting). But I have 9,959 songs on my iPod, so I had not listened to the song in two halves of forever. At Erlewine’s ‘suggestion,’ I queued up “Promised Land” on my iPod. It was almost like discovering rock and roll for the first time. The classic Chuck Berry guitar intro, a vintage Berry guitar solo, great piano by Johnnie Johnson, and a wonderful story told with clever lyrics- all under 3 minutes. That just isn’t done anymore.

As I listened to the song on repeat, I realized how happy I was to have stumbled onto Erlewine’s article and it made me think about how cool it is to be able to share favorite songs and artists and albums with other people.

I hope that’s what I am doing right now:

“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”

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About Josh Hathaway

  • Oh, HELL yeah! I’m just noticing the line about “Ridin’ cross mississippi clean” It appears that he was distinctly uninterested in stopping in the state. As Nina Simone memorably put it, “Missisippi Goddam!”

  • JR

    But it looks like he went out of his way to go through the South. From Norfolk, he could have gone straight across Tennessee and crossed the Mississippi at Memphis.

    Maybe he did that in another song…

  • “Promised Land” is 1 part story, 1 part geography lesson. And he does it all under 2 1/2 minutes with a nice guitar solo thrown in for good measure!

    It really is a fabulous song.

  • Eric Olsen

    I think Chuck is Dylan’s equal as a lyricist, and is his superior as an overall rock ‘n’ roll songwriter

  • Eric Olsen

    btw, thanks DJR! My personal favorite Chuck lyrics are “Brown-eyed Handsome Man”: “a-rounding third and heading for home was the brown-eyed handsome man”

  • Well, it’s part story, part geography, and part metaphor. He’s on a journey to the “promised land,” and a black man in America was definitely going to have a rough ride through through the South on the way. You’d be way missing the point if you just grabbed a plane from the Midwest to Cali. Wouldn’t be much song in that.

  • I think Dylan is more poetic and capable of going deeper/more profound. BUT… I think Chuck edges him out in terms of sheer cleverness and word economy. Chuck speaks the language of rock and roll, Dylan is a poet. They are both great and both have their place, but sometimes you want “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” or “Thirty Days” instead of “Masters of War.”

    I think my favorite Chuck lyric might be “Tulane.” Genius.

  • I think the metaphor aspect is very important. He is not just going to California- he is leaving the South behind.

  • Yes, he’s heading for the land of milk and honey.

    Note, however, that even after he gets there, he’s calling home collect.

  • JR

    You couldn’t leave the South behind in California – L.A. still had segregation. Sometimes the Promised Land is no more than a promise.

  • Yes, even the Israelites still had to whip a bunch of ass once they actually got to the promised land.

  • It was not a picnic for African-Americans anywhere in this country during those tumultuous times. But George Wallace didn’t block the entrance to USC {I live in Alabama, so that image that strikes close to home).

    And as to the collect call home… family is still family. But you are right. It is interesting that he ends the song with the phonecall.

    I think the great thing about this song is that it can be digested as a simple pop song or analyzed for social commentary.

  • Eric Olsen

    as can “Johnny B. Goode” “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and “Almost Grown,” among others