When Chuck Berry passed last Saturday at 90, the airwaves swelled with gratitude and stories of the man who brought us the duck walk and My Ding-A Ling, did gigs as a beautician and a stint as a reform school kid on the way up, and built the genre from the freestyle of the blues, the whine of the country guitar, the simple call-and-refrain verse-chorus-verse of the folksong, the beat of a rhythm and blues nation, and the definitive string-led combo.
Finding a plethora of coverage of Berry’s canon seemed inevitable: many of the long-standing artist and performer’s greatest hits were also hits for other seminal rock and rollers, both peers and inheritors, from Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis to The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and The Beatles, whose classic versions of Roll Over Beethoven and Memphis helped put them on the map in the first place. Indeed, arguably, Berry’s songs are so well covered, many of them have become truly folk, part and parcel of the vast spectrum that is the modern western songbook; it says what it needs to that Johnny B. Goode is the only rock and roll song on the Voyager spacecraft, where one day, it may well establish the Earth as a cultured rest stop for the alien mind, a truly exciting and excitable space among the heavens.
Anyone truly deserving of the name “architect of rock and roll” has enough influence to cross genre lines, too. And sure enough, Berry’s songs have found their way from punk to country, where their easily translatable lyrics and eminently playable beats bring comfort to new audiences exploring the sounds of the soul. Though many of Chuck Berry’s songs are so seminal, their transformations are hard to search for, our dip into the vast realm of folk and roots coverage here today reveals a broad influence, heavy on the real and rustic but unusually diverse in subgenre, from sultry country swing to fieldhouse rhythm and blues to contemporary fingerpickin’ folk rock, with stops in everyspace from jug band blues to crackling Cajun along the way. Guess it just proves that rock and roll will never die – at least, not so long as it continues to infiltrate the sense and sensibility of the multifaceted folkways.
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