Freddie Kafer, a very immature little newsie selling Saturday Evening Posts and newspapers at the entrance to the State Capitol. He did not know his age, nor much of anything else. He was said to be 5 or 6 years old. Nearby, I found Jack who said he was 8 years old, and who was carrying a bag full of Saturday Evening Posts which weighed nearly 1/2 of his own weight. The bag weighed 24 pounds, and he weighed only 55 pounds. He carried this bag for several blocks to the car. Said he was taking them home. Location: Sacramento, California Source: Library of Congress
Published: March 24, 2017
In BackStory’s second history grab bag, Joanne, Ed, Brian and Nathan discuss the history behind items in this week’s news. They’ll look at Boston Public School’s decision to ditch the traditional world map for a new one that reflects the true proportions of Europe, Africa and the Americas, and discuss Democrats’ sudden fondness for States’ Rights, as they look for ways to push back against Republicans. The hosts also tip their hats to late rock ‘n roll legend Chuck Berry.
Boston Public schools introduce new, more geographically accurate world map. Joanne describes the Mercator map, drawn in l569, which has been the standard world map used in schools across America. The only problem is that it exaggerates the size of Europe and the U.S., and shrinks Africa and Latin America.
With Republicans controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, Brian notes the irony of Democrats suddenly embracing states’ rights. It’s an issue formerly associated with slave-holders and white supremacists.
Ed thinks Chuck Berry was the first musician to synthesize jazz, blues, and country music into what came to be known as rock and roll. BackStory technical director (and professional musician) Jamal Milner jumps into the studio to help Ed out.
ED: Venture funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
JOANNE: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.
NATHAN: Welcome to BackStory. I’m Nathan Connelly.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.
JOANNE: And I’m Joanne Freeman.
NATHAN: If you’re new to the podcast, each week Brian, Joanne, Ed, and I, all historians, take a story from the headlines and try to see how we got here. But every few weeks we host what’s called a history grab bag, where we each bring in news and discuss its history. Today, on the podcast, we’ll tackle Boston public schools, adopting a new, geographically accurate world map. You won’t believe how the old map is. Liberals’ sudden embrace of state rights is our second topic–
BRIAN: That sounds pretty old too, Nathan.
NATHAN: That’s true. And we’re also going to talk about the late, great Chuck Berry, who we lost this week. And we’ll wrap up the conversation today with what we call footnotes, probably my favorite segment. And that’s when one of us brings in an item from the archives that we absolutely love.
OK, so let’s dive into our first story. Joanne, what have you got for us?
JOANNE: OK. So Boston public schools, apparently, are introducing new maps into their school rooms. Now the old map was called the Mercator projection. And it was created in, believe it or not, 1569.
JOANNE: It’s the one that we all probably remember being pulled down from the front of a classroom, with all the continents and different colors. I mean, we all probably know that map. So, there are a couple of really striking things about that original 1569 map. And one of them is that not only do North America and Europe sort of appear at center of everything, but it’s way out of scale. So they seem much larger than all of the other continents. And South America and Africa are much, much smaller.
ED: I don’t think people would ever have guessed that you could fit five United States of America’s inside of Africa. That’s the actual scale.
JOANNE: So, now, there’s a new one that Boston is introducing into classrooms, called the Peters projection. And the difference is that this new map has the continents, and this is going to sound shocking that this wasn’t the case, and that this is stunningly surprising that it is. The continents are now going to be actual geographic perspective. Meaning that South America is two times the size of Europe, it’s going to actually look that way. Africa is going to look like an enormous continent.
The old map apparently, and this is logical, right? It was a navigation map. It was a trade map largely. And so we had been growing up looking at this map with this weird distorted sort of continental look. So this new map is going to be introduced into these classrooms. And the language that the Boston schools are using, among other things, they said they are, “de-colonizing the curriculum.”
JOANNE: That they’re very deliberately showing to their students, who are pretty diverse, different narratives, a different world perspective, different ways of understanding the world.
NATHAN: That’s really helpful because for all this time I thought Greenland was like the world’s most powerful country.
JOANNE: It isn’t?
ED: So let me ask this, Joanne. Who disagrees with this? And I know they must, or we wouldn’t be talking about it on BackStory.
JOANNE: Well it’s new. I mean this is as of last week.
NATHAN: It’s the Greenlanders, I’m sorry.
JOANNE: That’s right!
I don’t know if there are people who have initially come out and said, this is a horrible thing. I think people are just remarking, for the first time, that there are going to be these diverse perspectives. Some people, I guess, have been murmuring about whether the old view is going to be eliminated or not. Actually, pointedly, the schools are saying they’re going to have both maps there, so that students can compare them.
BRIAN: I don’t want to be a wise guy.
ED: (LAUGHING) What, did you stop now?
BRIAN: In this digital age, are they still pulling maps down over the chalkboard? I had no idea. I just you assumed you went to your computer and you looked at a map.
JOANNE: You would think. So, the way, at least that the stories that I read online have it, is that, of course, classrooms are now partly using things that are online. But that actually, in some way or another, in the front of the classroom, they’re going to have two maps. Now, I don’t know if they’re projecting them. You’re asking me a technology question, Brian. I don’t know about technology.
ED: Well, let me ask you a history question then, Joanne.
JOANNE: Thank you, Ed.
ED: Is this, oh so demonstrative of the decline of America? Even in our own eyes, is this seen as, we are losing any idea that we are exceptional in the world and we’re just another landmass?
ED: Not even a big one at that.
JOANNE: What I would have expected to see, as opposed to, sort of, American exceptional-ism being stepped on, is just someone protesting. And again, this is such a new story that I don’t think anyone’s weighed in yet, other than to say it’s happening. But I thought someone would get pissy about the fact that it’s allowing for diverse views. And at this moment where every kind of minority in the world is being shoved out to the sidelines, I would have assumed that someone would say, well wait a minute, my narrative, the traditional narrative, the European narrative, the white narrative, that’s the narrative.
ED: You know they’re going to.
JOANNE: Well exactly.
ED: Especially as soon as it gets out of Boston.
JOANNE: That is what I expect to see, but I did not find any of that, yet.
BRIAN: I wonder what some of the other iconic maps were, going back through history? I know that in early America, Jo, the postal service was really crucial, in terms of placing maps of the country and post offices. That’s where a lot of people got their picture of the country to begin with. And you know, when you think about it, the way we understand our relationship to others, whether it’s within America or across borders, really is through these maps. I remember growing up as a kid with roadmaps. That’s how I could tell how far I was from the next Texaco station, for instance.
JOANNE: Now I had, when I was actually growing up, we had these AAA maps where you flip–
ED: Oh yeah, Triptychs!
JOANNE: That, exactly, where there was never one big map. But I do think, looking back, I don’t know. I guess it’s tempting to look at maps, and this is maybe with the start of the story, as the truth. But, for example, there’s a comical story about Lewis and Clark being given apparently a very accurate map, of sorts, by Native Americans when they were out trying to figure out the frontier. And being hopelessly lost because they couldn’t understand what the landmarks were that the Native Americans were using. They couldn’t figure out how to interpret a map. So, I don’t know. I guess this is partly a story about world views and diversity.
BRIAN: And I’ve always wondered how maps in the South, during the Civil War, portrayed the nation. Did they even show the north?
ED: Well, unfortunately the Confederacy didn’t actually have any map makers. So–
I’m not kidding. You could make something like that. They had a hard time–
BRIAN: Well they just drew a big X with a circle? Around the northern part, above the Mason-Dixon line?
ED: No. They didn’t deny that. They recognized that there was another country up there. And they weren’t trying to get rid of it. They were just trying to create their own. So, I think what would have been intriguing, from the Southern point of view, where was the real Southern boundary? They thought it would be, if they were able to establish their independence, they’d be going to Cuba pretty soon. And then what was really to stop it, all the way to the South? So, if you can imagine what the Confederate States of America would have looked like had they won, I think you’d see something that might have encircled the Caribbean.
NATHAN: I think that’s right, that there were designs in the Confederacy for a cotton kingdom, deep into Brazil, even. It’s just kind of amazing to imagine.
BRIAN: You know, one thing we haven’t talked about are the colors of the map themselves. So I just want to offer this image from the late 1940s or early 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. And it’s from a news reel. And it talks about drawing an iron curtain across Eastern Europe. And this, of course, is Soviet influence and control of all these countries. And it’s definitely the era of black and white, but they’re just fooling around with color. And this red to represent communism, and Reds, just oozes across Eastern Europe. And I’ll never forget that image. And I won’t forget it, because the show it to my students. And we haven’t really talked about the colors in this map. But this map strikes me as, I don’t know, more natural. There kind of more greens and browns.
JOANNE: Greens and browns. Yeah.
BRIAN: And more like what these continents might really look like, if you went there.
JOANNE: You mean they’re not pink in real life?
BRIAN: Exactly! Exactly, they’re not the colors of M&M’s, for instance.
ED: Too bad.
NATHAN: It’s a layering of the information. In some ways, it’s a post climate change map, right?
NATHAN: Where the deserts are. Where the green areas are. Where the snow-caps are.
JOANNE: Right, right, right.
NATHAN: Or where they once were
BRIAN: You know what? The oceans looked a lot bigger to me, Nathan.
NATHAN: No it’s true. I think we ask our maps to do a lot for us now, and create a lot of information. And the simple resizing of countries, the fact that now requires a kind of split-screen approach, really. Let’s put both maps up together, side by side, to start a conversation.
JOANNE: Right, right, right.
NATHAN: There’s actually a right and wrong map. This isn’t a debate between which country is bigger than Greenland or not.
JOANNE: But I love the fact that they want these kids to have that debate.
JOANNE: About, basically, what is the real world? In a literal kind of a way. I think that’s kind of striking.
NATHAN: All maps matter. No, I’m sorry.
JOANNE: Now it’s worth noting that, to some degree, all maps are inaccurate. Because we’re taking something that’s round, and making it flat. So, I don’t mean to say that there’s some wonderful, perfect, flat map out there. But there’s inaccuracy, and then there’s inaccuracy.
NATHAN: I wonder if our listeners might be a bit surprised that we’re making such a big to-do about maps. I mean, how is this not just a kind of trivial story about updates in school materials.
JOANNE: Well, I think when you get right down to it, although we tend to think of a map as a picture of land, the change of maps, that I just talked about, is really an emphasis on the fact that maps are projections of power. Whether you’re talking about casting your eyes across a continent, or encompassing the Caribbean, or, in one way or another, they show you who is at the center of things. Or in the old case, they showed you someone who was at the center. And now, we sort of de-centralized them.
ED: And we’ve lived through a revolution in maps. And we carried it around on our smartphones. And it’s projected in our cars. Our relationship to space has been fundamentally changed in the last decade. And, what I wonder, is the students today– kids these days– are able to actually say anything larger than a description of where they’re going next?
BRIAN: Turn right at–
ED: Yeah, toward where? We’re not going to tell you.
ED: So, I have to admit, I miss both the triptychs from the AAA, and the big Texaco maps. You could unfold those and get some sense of context.
ED: It feels like, today, that it’s not unlike Twitter. You know, the information is chopped up into small pieces. And it’s hard to get any sense of where we are.
NATHAN: Yeah. The funny thing about the old map from the 16th century too is that, even as the countries change, and you have the end of the former Yugoslavia or whatever other national boundaries get redrawn, the outline remains in effect, the same. Right? So there’s also a question about power over multiple generations. Where even if the geopolitics of a given map are different, you have a kind of mental image of what the world is supposed to look like.
But what would it mean if we turned the entire map itself upside down? Right? I mean there’s no up or down in space, technically. If you made south north and north south?
JOANNE: Oh, that’s kind of cosmics there, Nathan.
BRIAN: I’m kind of getting a little car sick, can we pull over?
NATHAN: Oh, and one more thing before we get back to the show. Joanne, I had a question for you. And it’s something I’ve never really had the courage to ask you, but it’s really important. And I need you to be honest with me here.
JOANNE: OK, this is kind of scary, but go ahead.
NATHAN: What are some of your favorite podcasts?
JOANNE: You have never had the courage to ask me that before?
NATHAN: Listen, we’re still getting to know each other. This is a totally new world. Come on.
JOANNE: That’s true. Well, I will say I just started listening to one called the Whiskey Rebellion. It’s about American history beaming out of Scotland. And I just love the fact that–
NATHAN: Get out.
JOANNE: Yeah, really.
NATHAN: All right.
JOANNE: I like the fact that American history is beaming from someplace else in the world.
NATHAN: So when you’re not listening to BackStory, you’re listening to that. What else you got?
JOANNE: That’s about all I got, Nathan.
NATHAN: That’s all right. That’s all right. We all got to start with one. And listen, now that you told me, and now that you’ve told our listeners, it’ll be easy for you to tell your friends and family. So, let them know what you listen to, even if it’s just the one. Because there are so many smart people out there who just don’t know what the world of podcast can offer. And listeners, don’t forget to tell us what you like too. Hop onto Facebook and Twitter, and tell us what shows and episodes you’d recommend with the hashtag #trypod. That’s T- R- Y- pod. Thanks for spreading the word. Now onto our second topic. Brian, you’re up. What have you got for us?
BRIAN: I’ve got one of the oldest issues in American history. Just how powerful should the states be, vis-a-vis the national government? Usually we call this federalism, right? It’s the balance between what the national government should do, what the states should do. Well, here’s the news. Liberals are embracing state’s rights. Now to a lot of people who are over the age of 50, or who know their recent American history, states’ rights smacks of really a conservative anthem that was all around race. States had the rights to protect their old Jim Crow systems of racial discrimination. And quite frankly, most liberals have viewed giving power to the states very suspiciously.
However, with the Republican Party’s capture of Congress, the White House, and, it would appear, the Supreme Court as well very soon, a lot of liberals are saying that we need to return power to the states. We need to let Colorado, for instance, decide whether people should use recreational marijuana. We need to let California set its own environmental standards. So, we need to let cities, who are entities within states, decide how they’re going to enforce immigration control, or not enforce it. So, could we just say that states’ rights is what all losers advocate?
JOANNE: Brian, I’m not going to let you say that states’ rights is for loser. I mean–
NATHAN: Although that would be a great t-shirt, for the record.
JOANNE: I might want that t-shirt, just so I can have a t-shirt that states’ rights is for losers on it. But, going all the way back in time, going back to early America, that’s a period when states’ rights are the comfortable thing. Right? That’s a period when a big national something is very scary.
JOANNE: The nation just broke away from the British Empire, they’re scared of big, national, centralizing things. And–
BRIAN: They were worried that the empire would strike back.
JOANNE: This is the t-shirt episode of BackStory.
But they certainly were afraid of a big national, centralized something. And so the brilliant, brilliant compromise at the Constitutional Convention is federalism, which is the idea that you can divide sovereignty between levels of government, state governments, and the national government. So the Constitution, the original Constitution, doesn’t talk about national anythings. It talks about federal things. Because it sort of bypasses that scary national something.
ED: Got you. And federalism was great until it brought on the Civil War.
Other than that, it was a great idea. Now, it didn’t really bring on the Civil War, but here’s what I mean. The great compromise, the division of sovereignty that you talk about, Joanne, also means that there’s a constant contest over where that sovereignty should really be located.
And, Brian, going back to your point about losers, the slave South seemed to be winning everything under this federal system. Matter of fact, they said, look, we’ve got the national government guaranteeing slavery and protecting our rights. So, it’s not until late, in what we now call the antebellum period, the era before the war, that the South says, what were we thinking. No. We’re not for federal power. We’re for states’ rights. And for our right to determine the future of our own domestic institutions, by which they mean slavery.
BRIAN: Ah, but Ed, isn’t that precisely because the nation was expanding? And new states were coming in that weren’t going to be slave states? And they thought they were going to lose, as in loser.
ED: Yeah, I think that’s right. And what they thought they would lose unfairly, because it was going to be– and this is a kind of shades of recent events– that the North, simply because of its preponderance of population, was going to have a kind of power that overran the map of federalism in which the states– Right? If they’re the basis of power, why should just a bunch of people gathered in a few northern cities be running all the shots?
NATHAN: Call the shots, yeah.
ED: Yeah, exactly. So, I don’t want to run the story for anyone, but they then lose the civil war.
NATHAN: Damn it.
ED: And once they do, then the federal government, in the guise of reconstruction, really establishes a kind of power, consistency, authority, it’s never had before.
NATHAN: So I’m going to complicate this even further, and simply say, you know what, maybe states’ rights is actually for winners. Number one, at the exact moment when the senators in the Jim Crow South are talking about states’ rights, they’re claiming that they’re the original liberals, right? They’re claiming that they’re the 19th century classical liberals who believe in individual rights, who believe in property rights, who believe in contract, over entitlements, over group rights. And guess what? They actually carry much of the day, politically, in the late 20th and 21st century. Now, we certainly aren’t looking at Jim Crow signs anymore. But a lot of what we’re dealing with, at the level of American political culture, reflects good old fashioned classical liberalism, right?
BRIAN: And you know what Nathan? What’s really funny is they are protecting, or seek to protect a lot of those rights, by using guess who? Not state government, but the national government. That’s why they want to overturn Roe v wade. They want to protect the individual rights of the unborn, but they want to do it at the national level.
NATHAN: Yes. Well if you look at the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council, or even if you look at grassroots efforts like Moral Monday in North Carolina, right? These are efforts to look at the local level to understand how to take over state politics. And, in some ways, redraw political power in this country from the bottom up, right? And this is going to be–
JOANNE: I’ve got to throw a word in here. I gotta throw a word in here.
NATHAN: What’s that?
ED: That’s what I was getting ready to say too.
NATHAN: It’s true!
JOANNE: And I have to offer a piece of trivia here. So we say gerrymander, but the guy who gave us that term, who is Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gary– Elbridge Gerry, and gerrymandering. I know you never knew this before.
NATHAN: I did not.
ED: I’m going to say Gerry-mandering, just so I can correct people–
JOANNE: It should be Gerry-mandering, and that just doesn’t have any zing.
JOANNE: So it’s gerrymandering.
ED: But I want to ask–
BRIAN: I [INAUDIBLE] it.
ED: Our twe– I want to ask–
JOANNE: Oh man.
ED: So I want to ask our 20th, 21st century friends a question about this. Because I agree with you, gerrymandering, I was just dying to say about that. Because, it seems to me, that it’s scrambling this clean distinction between state and federal.
ED: Now, local seems to be using federal power to claim state power, which is interfering with federal power. What’s going on there?
NATHAN: So, just for the sake of clarity, gerrymandering is the effort to redraw electoral lines to benefit one party over another. And this is a constant feature in American electoral politics, because as people are in power at the state level, they have the authority to redraw political maps to favor them in federal elections or, obviously, in local elections as well. So there’s a relationship between what happens at the state level to what happens at the national level.
So the problem of elections, and electoral maps, and who’s in power, all of this, I think, is proof positive that there’s never really been a separate sphere between federal power and local power, right? So, many commentators who might want to say liberals have just discovered states’ rights obviously don’t appreciate the fact that, one, liberals have been of various stripes throughout the country’s history. But that, two, states’ rights has always been part of the equation for political power. And maybe, in fact, what the real commentary is about is that we, as Americans, have always been focused so much more on national elections. And every four years voting for the president that we’re now seeing a discernible effort on the part of the present day Democratic Party to run people in midterm elections, to think about local political power in a way that would at least be more overtly connected to national political contests.
BRIAN: So, I just want to say, Americans have always been focused on what we might call venue shopping. And that is, if they lose at the national level, they seek to win at the state level or the local level, and vice versa. If they lose at the local level, they try to go to the state level.
BRIAN: This is, in some ways, the beauty of federalism. And it has very much been a safety valve that allows losers– note my emphasis on loss, Nathan– it allows losers to win just enough to keep them in the game. And not pick up their marbles, like the Confederate States of America, and leave.
NATHAN: So I guess it’s safe to say then that it’s neither about winners or losers, but it really is the nature of the game, right? That the states’ rights question will never really be off the table, but it will be a critical piece of American politics going forward.
All right. So now, Ed, you’re up. What have you got for us? I sense you have music on the mind?
ED: Yeah. I’m going to do something that’s a little unusual for BackStory. I want us to have a fervent debate of the sort that has put dormitories in turmoil for decades, which is arguing about who is the best musician. And not just any musician, but the best rock musician. So– and it’s not just–
BRIAN: I’ve got my beanbag chair, Ed.
ED: You can’t get ready–
JOANNE: Do you have your lava lamp though?
ED: OK. Well, you’re already giving away which time your favoring. Cause here’s what I want to argue–
It’s not just because he died this week, but I believe that Chuck Berry is the pivotal figure in American popular music in the 20th century. Now I can either make the case beforehand and leave you whimpering in the corner, or
You can go ahead and argue against me now, and tell me why you think that may be mistaken.
NATHAN: Well, you sound awfully certain, Ed. So I want to actually invite you to go ahead and throw it out there. What are you talking about?
ED: OK, well, it strikes me that the 20th century is over now. So we can say things like, the 20th century. We know how it turned out. 20th century rock music, it seems to me to be one of America’s greatest exports, one of its greatest artistic accomplishments, and one of its most exciting art forms. And none of that would exist in the form that we know it without Chuck Berry. So that’s what I mean. I think that it’s not just a niche of American culture, but I think the mainstream of American culture was changed by this one man from St. Louis more than by any other person.
Now, here’s what I mean. So here’s this guy in the great American tradition of coming out of nowhere. He’s from a middle class African-American family. He’s at a loss for much of his life. He goes to reform school, he studies cosmetology, he does these different kind of jobs. But, on the sideline, he’s learning to play guitar. And he’s picking up with a local group of three guys. And he’s hearing all this rich stew, all around him. America, in the late 1940s, early 1950s, you can turn the dial and hear country on one, and blues on the next, and jazz on another, and sort of Tin Pan Alley on another station.
And it’s all running together in the best American tradition. But other people are content to sort of leave them be separate. But Chuck Berry says, you know, I believe that if we combined hillbilly music with R&B music, which is traditionally known as an African-American music, that we could make something new. And most importantly, the audiences that I’m playing to would love it. And that’s what he does. He combines all these forms of music, what we think of as white music and black music, what we think of, in some ways, as teenager music and adult music, in an entirely new form.
BRIAN: Since you set this up as a dorm party, I’ve got a special guest. Jamal Millner, our technical director and–
ED: And professional musician? Oh no.
BRIAN: –Professional musician is here.
[LAUGHTER] Yes. Is he a ringer? Yes, he’s a ringer. Go for it, Jamal.
NATHAN: This is like when you’re playing pickup basketball and you bring your cousin from out of town.
BRIAN: You bet. I did bring my cousin from out of town.
ED: All right. All I can say is, Jamal, I can’t go to my left, man, so don’t even do that–
I’m sorry I have to go now.
So what do you think, Jamal? You think it’s overstated?
JAMAL: No. I totally agree with you. I think what Chuck was able to do is what you said. Fuse what had been thought of as music for quote hand white people with the music that was thought of as quote hand black people music–
JAMAL: –since the beginning of the record industry and race records. So, Chuck was able to bridge this huge cultural gap that I can’t think of any other artist that did that. But he isn’t alone in the birth of this, as no one is. I guess Louis Jordan begat Chuck Berry. Count Basie Band begat Louis Jordan. And, alongside Chuck Berry are acknowledged masters like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and people you may know more readily, like Little Richard, Ike Turner with Rocket 88, and the great Bo Diddley who introduced the world to the clave, which is that beat that we all associate with Bo Diddley but is actually just a regular African rhythm.
Chuck Berry’s genius is that he was able to simplify and also find the essence of those more complex styles, and communicate those to the
BRIAN: –People like you.
ED: So we’re vociferously agreeing, Jamal, that Chuck Berry takes these remarkably rich streams and makes them into something new. And one way he makes them into something new is, first of all, being popular to the entire American population, which was something that was very hard to do at this time. But he also became the standard-maker for people like Bob Dylan and the Beatles by insisting that he write his own music. Unlike Elvis, which some people out there might be thinking, incorrectly, as the correct winner of this contest. He, Chuck Berry’s not just interpreting other people’s music, or he’s not Frank Sinatra, who’s also interpreting other people’s music. Chuck Berry is writing his own words.
And, you know I have to say, ever since I knew that I wanted to do this earlier this week, I’ve been reading over some of his words. And I just want to share some of these with you.
NATHAN: All right.
ED: With my fellow host–
BRIAN: Do you need a little guitar in the background, Ed?
ED: We do. And I know that when Chuck Berry toured for the last 30 years of his life, he would just show up in the town. And whatever pickup group the promoter could put together, he would say, OK, we’re going to play some Chuck Berry songs. And they all could, because everybody knew his music.
ED: But Chuck Berry’s first song, 1955, it’s a reworking of an old Bob Wills song the 1930s, a Western swing song made popular by a white group. And here are the first two lines. “As I was moter-vatin’ over the hill, I saw Maybelline in a Coupe de Ville.” The third word that he does–
BRIAN: That’s great.
JOANNE: I love moter-vatin’.
ED: –He makes up. “As I was moter-vatin’ over the hill, I saw Maybelline in a Coupe de Ville. A Cadillac a-rolllin’ on the open road, nothing will outrun my V8 Ford. The Cadillac doin’ about 95, she’s bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side.” How can you not like that? Now, listen to this. But there’s–
BRIAN: I moter-vated it.
ED: I know, you’re highly moter-vated.
JAMAL: Oh yeah. That motivation, that’s an awesome line. But that moter-vation that he mentions is also referencing the big American V8 car and the emergence of the highway system and now Americans driving all over, as opposed to being on trains.
NATHAN: Right. That’s true.
JAMAL: In older forms of Black American music, like blues, the rhythm of the train is very important. And the train sound I mean is the rhythmic movement of the train. Like chugga-chugga chugga-chugga chugga-chugga. So this is when the basic rhythm that we know in rock and roll emerges. And that’s that dunda-dunda dunda-dunda dunda-dunda. dunda-dunda. And that’s, again, it’s just rhythmically emulating the car.
ED: Yeah, well that’s what I meant to say, Jamal.
But listen to this. This is Nadine, a little bit later in Chuck Berry’s career. He’s looking for Nadine in a city. He’s riding a bus, in a cab, trying to catch her. He says, “pushing through the crowd, trying to get where she’s at, I was campaign shouting, like a southern diplomat.”
JAMAL: That’s great.
ED: You know? And so you can see how clever he is, playing with these ideas of race and marginality. And none of them is as direct on this as Brown-eyed Handsome Man. You want to hear another great opening line?
JOANNE: Go for it, Ed.
ED: “Arrested on charges of unemployment, he was sitting on the witness stand. The judge’s wife called the district attorney, said you free that brown-eyed man. You want your job, you better free that brown-eyed man. How many transgressions can you fit into a five line stanza?
ED: Because, obviously, the wife of the judge, calling the district attorney, we’re talking about white people. And then, listen to this. “Milo Venus was a beautiful lass. She had the world in the palm of her hand. But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match to get a brown-eyed handsome man.” And then, finally, a tribute to Jackie Robinson. “2-3 count, with nobody on, he hit a high fly into the stand. Rounding third he was headed for home. It was a brown-eyed handsome man that won the game. It was a brown-eyed handsome man.”
BRIAN: Except there is no such thing as a 2-3 count. It’s 3-2.
JAMAL: It just doesn’t sound right in this song. Robert Johnson started that with 32-20 blues. There’s no such gun, but the numbers must sound right.
NATHAN: You’ve got to let the art do its thing, right?
BRIAN: OK. All right. Just, you know–
NATHAN: That’s amazing. I–
BRIAN: Yeah. It is amazing. It’s terrific.
ED: And then you have to put underneath that Chuck Berry licks. He basically invents the sound on which modern rock and roll and the British invasion was built. And there’s a great line, Bob Seger, he says, all of Chuck’s children. Basically modern rock and roll is all descendants of Chuck Berry. And what’s so great about it is he brings this sense of not only– He’s writing the words himself, they’re playful words, they’re ironic words, they’re kind of sly words, but they rock like hell. They’ve got this great back beat. You just can’t lose it. You’ve got to love Chuck Berry.
JAMAL: So, Ed, I got to tell you. I only own one Chuck Berry song on my mp3 collection. And so I’m ashamed to say you’re driving me now to have to update my library, so I appreciate that.
ED: His estate will appreciate it.
NATHAN: And speaking of libraries, I want to move us to our final segment today, what we call Footnotes. Now Brian, you brought something out of the archive. Now, I can’t take the suspense anymore. You’ve got to let me know what you have.
BRIAN: Yeah, you may not take the suspense, but you are going to have to take an exam and your first, Nathan.
NATHAN: Oh, OK.
BRIAN: I’ve got a question for each one of you.
NATHAN: All right.
BRIAN: Number nine. Does enumeration affect the income tax levied on citizens in various states?
BRIAN: All right. Here’s your question, Joanne. Appropriation for the armed services can be only for a period limited to x years.
JOANNE: I have absolutely no idea.
BRIAN: That’s probably a good answer. Ed, here’s one for you. The electoral vote for president is counted in the presence of two bodies. Name them. I’m sorry our time is up.
NATHAN: What in the world do you have, as a guest on my–
BRIAN: I have–
NATHAN: –I’ll be honest with you.
BRIAN: You guys got the easy question. You got the easy question. You’ve got three out of 68 questions that were presented to any African-American who had the audacity to try to register to vote in Alabama in 1965.
NATHAN: The old literacy test
BRIAN: So I just want to point out that at least to me, 1965 does not seem that long ago. And I love this archival document because it really captures kind of the end of the struggle to register to vote for an African-American in Alabama in 1965. Because you have to know, that to even get to that point, that African-Americans risked their employment, they risk the employment of their families, and in some instances they risked physical harm, and even death, in the very act of trying to register to vote. And I feel pretty strongly about this as some politicians try to roll back protections for voters in recent elections. Or talk about all kinds of voter fraud without backing it up statistically. I think people really need to understand how hard it was to vote for hundreds of thousands of Americans, in my opinion, not all that long ago.
JOANNE: And how clearly, vitally, central that is to democracy and power. Because why else have those sorts of walls–
NATHAN: Absolutely. I mean, the tendency now, again, to think about these elections as being kind of the big national issues of the day can sometimes obscure the intimacy of that kind of denial, right? I mean, and the real human stakes of that. One of the things that I always remember, when thinking about Southern voter discrimination, is just all of the down ballot issues that are going to be there. Issues around eminent domain, or the taking of your land for a so-called public good, or the allocation of tax dollars for new parks, or what’s your tax payment will be on year to year, that can all wind up on that same ballot that you can’t get access to if you fail one of these tests. That’s pretty crazy.
ED: And the thing too, Brian, is that if all of us were meant to learn American government that thoroughly, that would be one thing. But this was there for only one reason. It’s because the 15th amendment said you cannot abridge votes because of race. So therefore, what impediments can we throw in people’s ways? Poll tax was probably the most common way. But you put this understanding clause in there, and you have basically precluded a broad range of people who might be willing to save $2 for a poll tax. But there is no way that they can overcome the sheer determination of the registrar, that no matter how educated you are, and how much you know this, you cannot persuade them that you deserve to vote.
NATHAN: So I think it may surprise some of our listeners to consider that white voters were also being subjected to some of these tests.
ED: They could be. Say the thing is, going back to your earlier point, the idea, Nathan, is that this was at the discretion of the registrar in each county.
NATHAN: Right, right.
ED: And so if the registrar was your cousin, say, and you showed up. And he knows that you couldn’t read the back of a matchbook, he’s not going to ask you these questions if you’re white. But he could. Because the whole idea is this is a work around the 15th amendment, that says you may not restrict voting on the basis of race. You can restrict it on the basis of other things, failure to pay taxes, or to understand the Constitution. And so is the arbitrariness of this that is so maddening. And the perverse effect of this was that it drove down the white vote as well. And so in Virginia, in the 1920s, you had only 20 some percent of eligible voters who even bothered to show up.
BRIAN: Let me reiterate. States’ rights is for losers.
NATHAN: You know what? I think I’m coming around to believing you, Brian.
JOANNE: I’m not going.
NATHAN: Just give her another test.
BRIAN: That’s going to do it for today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode. Or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org Or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, @backstoryradio And feel free to review the new show in the iTunes store. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
ED: This episode of BackStory was produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Millner is our technical director, Diana Williams is our digital editor, and Joey Thompson is our researcher.
JOANNE: Additional help came from Sequoia Carrillo, Emma Craig, Aidan Lee, Courtney Spagna, Robin Blue, and Elizabeth Spach. Our theme song was written by Nick Thorburn. Additional music was composed by Podington Bear. Special thanks, as always, to the Johns Hopkins University studios in Baltimore.
NATHAN: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment. And by History Channel, history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia, and Dorothy Compton Professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities, and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.