2017-09-11 06:35:04
Road Trip: On the Path of Chuck Berry’s ‘Promised Land,’ Five Decades On

Chuck Berry’s 1964 classic “Promised Land” is all about motion. The opening guitar riff is a big and fast thing taking off, a bus leaving the station, a jet rising from the tarmac. The poor boy, our narrator, is endlessly rollin’ and ridin’, straddling that Greyhound, smoking into New Orleans, swinging low chariot, coming down easy.

It is a motion specific to the African-American experience in the 20th century: “The one thing they could do, that they couldn’t do under slavery, was move,” said Mark Burford, an associate music professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

And it is a motion designed to pull yourself out of trouble: “Each verse seems to have something happen, or lose something,” the Texas rocker Joe Ely told me, “but always, at the end of the next verse, it rises up like a phoenix.”

When Mr. Berry died at age 90 in March, I wondered what it would be like to experience this rising-up approach to travel in 2017, following the lyrics’ itinerary through the South. I love “Promised Land” because it’s not just about one Johnny B. Goode, but all of them, Americans everywhere on a shared spiritual journey, hitting the road when they’re feeling stuck, experiencing all the cathartic guitar solos, trying to outrace their inevitable second thoughts.

“If you wanted to paint a picture of that era,” Mr. Ely observed, “you wouldn’t even have to lift a brush, you could just pick up a guitar and play that song.” In just two minutes and 23 seconds, Mr. Berry establishes a whooshing vision of the American dream, as the poor boy leaves his home in Norfolk, Va., and takes buses, trains and jets to Los Angeles to make it in (presumably) the music business, briefly taking note of the civil rights unrest of the time.

My 15-year-old daughter, Rose, and I wanted to see how Mr. Berry’s elaborate pathway to the American dream had changed in this era of mass airline travel and Google Maps. In some ways, we slowed way, way down, watching the South unfold in a blur outside bus and train windows, with long stretches of mesmerizing nothingness.

But we also approximated the frantic rock ‘n’ roll motion of “Promised Land,” spending roughly 24 hours apiece in six of the eight cities the poor boy visits in the song: Norfolk; Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C.; Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; and Houston. We indulged ourselves with two nights each in New Orleans and Los Angeles. Yesterday, the Wheel of Excellence, high over Atlanta; tomorrow, a killer Bourbon Street brass band.

There were two key differences between the South of “Promised Land” and the South we experienced. One was chronological — back then, in the cities we visited, civil rights activists fought school desegregation in Charlotte; Freedom Riders rode Greyhounds to integrate lunch counters and bus stations; and Bull Connor, the infamous Birmingham public-safety commissioner, attacked peaceful protesters with dogs and fire hoses. Although we encountered references to today’s racial struggles, such as a “White Lies Matter” sign in a French Quarter window, we largely experienced civil rights as a museum artifact.

The other difference was the oversimplified nature of Mr. Berry’s pop song versus our complicated route. Mr. Berry wrote “Promised Land” in prison, after police busted him for inviting a 14-year-old girl he had met on the road to work at his St. Louis nightclub. (He argued vehemently that the charges were racist.) He had trouble securing a road atlas to create his fictional journey — prison officials weren’t thrilled about distributing maps. The “struggles” he refers to “halfway across Alabam’” are likely about Bull Connor; the poor boy “bypassed Rock Hill,” where a man in South Carolina beat the activist and future U.S. representative John Lewis for opening a “whites only” door in 1961. “In that passing reference to Rock Hill — just three words — it opens up a whole other interpretation of the song,” Mr. Burford said. “It’s very sly.”

We snapped into our vagabond lifestyle with the first city mentioned in the song, Norfolk, taking a midnight Uber from the airport, blathering about “Promised Land” to the driver, an older man who used to spend time at rock concerts but recently shifted to jazz. “Well, Chuck’s gone,” he lamented.

After he dropped us off at our standard-issue Wyndham down the street from the Greyhound stop, we woke up the next morning to take in as much of Norfolk as we could in three hours. We achieved protein-rich superberry bowls at the hotel restaurant Fruitive; a long look at the World War II-era U.S.S. Wisconsin docked in the Elizabeth River harbor; and 15 minutes of a Sunday morning service by a group called The Rising at the Norva nightclub, where a young preacher in jeans and a T-shirt explained to a crowd the perils of “frogs,” or small sins, such as viewing pornography or complaining about your job.

In the song, it isn’t until the second-to-last destination, Houston, that the poor boy meets “the people there who care a little about me” and buy him luggage and a silk suit. Our comparable moment came on Day Two, in Raleigh, which Mr. Berry name-checks with no commentary. My old friend David Menconi, the veteran music writer for the News & Observer, and his wife, the paralegal Martha Burns, put us up for the night, accompanied us to Lilly’s Pizza and gave us a tour of the city’s downtown coffee shops and concert halls. Mr. Menconi introduced us to Dare Coulter, an artist in dreadlocks who was painting an ambitious, 20-by-30-foot wall mural commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union, focusing on images of rebellion and dissent, from the 1968 Olympians flashing the Black Power salute to the “woke baby” who held up a sign at the Women’s March on Washington and went viral on social media.

Ms. Coulter had a looming deadline, and it was easy to discern why she was pushing it: In between grueling brush strokes she stopped to chat with (and hug) just about everyone who passed by downtown. Alnita Coulter, the artist’s mother and helper, recalled seeing Mr. Berry perform at an outdoor festival in Raleigh in 2006. He was 80 then, but, she recalls, “He moved.”

The next morning, Mr. Menconi drove us to the bus station and we took off for Charlotte, the next destination on Mr. Berry’s lyrical map. Although Charlotte still faces its past demons — a police officer here recently killed an African-American man, Keith Lamont Scott, setting off a wave of protests — it is also a fast-growing, new-South technology and banking hub that charmed us on a mild summer day. Our Airbnb was a modern, linear house, white with a cutout of weathered gray wood, on a not-quite-gentrified street lined with run-down Victorians. At one point, a police car showed up nearby, and our host explained that the two families across the street had been feuding for decades and occasionally yelled at each other from inside their houses until somebody called the authorities.

We walked about a mile to NoDa, short for North Davidson Street, a sort of mini-6th-Street-in-Austin packed with clubs, restaurants (ours was Cabo Fish Taco, and we were glad to meet its tomato-and-corn house salsa) and, yes, murals, including one in progress of a giant mermaid.

While we were “90 miles out of Atlanta,” as Mr. Berry sings, the hinky air-conditioning in the back of our crowded Greyhound was making everybody grumpy. A woman next to me in a tight baseball cap had sunk into a series of iPhone conversations before falling asleep with a blanket over her head, but by the end of the four-hour ride, when we could see Atlanta’s jagged skyline, the bus came alive with camaraderie. My seatmate was Chrishelle Jackson, an R&B singer who goes by the stage name Je’Elle. She had been riding buses since 10 o’clock the previous night, from her family’s home in Baltimore, back to where she lived outside Atlanta. She had been working with producers, record labels and video directors, some of whom were attempting to make her image too sexy when she considers herself a sophisticated “Kim Kardashian of music.” I suggested she was more like the poor boy in “Promised Land” than anyone we’d met on our trip so far.

“It’s a hard process,” she said. “But I’m going to L. A. — I’m going to the Promised Land. And it’s not to live. It’s because I’ve made progress in my career.” She didn’t have a silk suit, but she had 8,700 Instagram followers.

In Atlanta, we stayed at the Hyatt downtown, a high-rise with a tall lobby atrium and a 15th-floor room with a skyline view. On this trip, we avoided renting cars and over-Ubering, and economized by exploring on foot, which meant long, hot walks, but also colorful bursts of graffiti and rich shops like Criminal Records, a warehouse of CDs and comic books in Atlanta’s bohemian Little Five Points. Outside the downtown Centennial Olympic Park, beyond the dancing fountains set to “Twist & Shout,” was the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Here, through Freedom Riders photos and interview snippets, we learned about what happened at Rock Hill. I sat at a lunch counter facsimile and put on headphones, listening to old Southern men shout racist threats and slurs while my chair vibrated violently.

Our bus to Birmingham, Ala., the next stop in the song, rolled in late at night. Today’s Birmingham of old, downtown, light tan buildings, preserves its ugly history in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and a statue-filled park across the street, but it sets the old days against a colorful, tolerant present. A wall mural on the downtown police department depicts the Birmingham pledge (“I will discourage racial prejudice...”); viaducts light up in rainbows; and the downtown Birmingham Museum of Art contains a striking red-and-white birdhouse painted with the words “BIRDS NEED CHURCH HOUSE.”

Like in “Promised Land,” something “left us all stranded in downtown Birmingham,” but it wasn’t our ‘hound breaking down. Our first Amtrak was delayed four hours in a thunderstorm, so we took cover at El Barrio, whiling away the weather with chicken tacos and vegan tostadas.

Filled with revelers preparing for the Essence Festival, starring Diana Ross, John Legend and others, our train, as in the song, finally went smoking into New Orleans at midnight after spanning the bottom of Mississippi in the pitch-black darkness. We stayed at the Maison Dupuy just inside the French Quarter, and woke up the next day for blueberry pancakes at the Meals of the Heart Café, a small counter in the covered French Market. We walked 10 humid miles in all, up and down the Riverwalk along the Mississippi River, giving a few bucks to a trumpeter playing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” on a park bench. We circled around the Quarter and landed at quiet Louis Armstrong Park, where slaves were once given Sundays to dance and meet and, over time, created the foundation for jazz.

Across North Rampart Street is the laundromat that once housed Cosimo Matassa’s famous recording studio, where Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ray Charles and just about every talented musician in New Orleans recorded R&B hits from 1945 to 1956. We encountered a zillion local brass bands, including one of schoolkids going crazy on saxes and tubas at Peters Street and Ursulines Avenue.

I’d planned too late to get Essence tickets, so we went instead to the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, on Frenchmen Street, to see the pianist Ellis Marsalis lead his crack sax-and-trumpet quintet through his own compositions and songs by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. At the end, the wry Mr. Marsalis, 82, invited tourists to return to New Orleans and “make sure you bring your pocketbook because Louisiana is broke.” I contributed to the cause, a little, falling for a beggar’s old “I can tell you where you got them shoes” routine (“You got them on your feet!”) on Frenchmen Street outside the club.

By the time we left New Orleans the next day, Rose and I were afflicted with blisters and exhausted, but we were delighted to find the morning Amtrak to Houston to be our most luxurious transportation yet. This train had not just a snack counter but a bona fide, reservations-required dining car (O.K., we ate our own Subway sandwiches) and a viewing car to watch the scenery from overhead windows.

For us, downtown Houston on a Saturday night in July was uneventful, and while we took a long walk past the Hobby Center for Performing Arts and watched kids play on the playground at Tranquility Park, we were exhausted and thankful for the Lancaster Hotel, which had a three-window view of the downtown skyline and perfect air-conditioning. Tragically, Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Lancaster along with the rest of the city in late August, flooding the basement and leaving the first floor with a foot of water; the hotel will not accept reservations until “our situation gets better and the waters recede,” according to its website. In Mr. Berry’s song, Houston is where people “care a little ’bout me/and they won’t let the poor boy down” — in this case, I hope the world decides not to let a beleaguered city down, through donating to one of the many Harvey-related charities.

Finally it was time for our jet to the Promised Land. Several who’d followed our trip on social media were adamant that I eat “a T-bone steak a la cartee” on the flight, like the poor boy does, but I haven’t had red meat since 1994 and the closest thing Spirit Airlines provided to a steak was a $4 snack box of popcorn and a cup of noodles. I asked a flight attendant if the pilot could announce when we were “high over Albuquerque,” as Mr. Berry sings, but she said he was too busy. It didn’t matter — soon we were on the ground, trying to figure out which part of Mr. Berry’s “headin’ to the terminal gate, swing low chariot, taxi to the terminal zone, cut your engines, cool your wings” applied as we approached LAX. Whether Los Angeles was the Promised Land, it was certainly milder.

We could walk a few blocks downtown without sweating, and the vegan restaurants were far easier to locate, particularly the Kaya Street Kitchen, in West Hollywood, near our centrally located Airbnb on 6th Street. We ate breakfast on the Sunset Strip and dinner at the Farmers Market. In between, we collapsed in a serene, 50-acre Hollywood Park with bright green lawns and tall trees called Wattles Garden.

Unlike the smaller cities in the South, Los Angeles was impossible to fully explore in just a day and a half, so we followed the tourists to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I did a Google search the location of Chuck Berry’s star and we dutifully took selfies. Few rockers have risen up as meteorically as Mr. Berry — his father worked in a Baden, Mo., flour mill with barely enough money to raise his family, and the singer painstakingly built his music career by crisscrossing the United States, overcoming prejudice and segregation.

“Promised Land” may be loosely based on Mr. Berry’s own history, although in 1987, when he received his Hollywood star, mugged for cameras and did the duckwalk, he did not mention any trip through the South on trains and buses to get there.