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American rock 'n' roll star Chuck Berry has died at the age of 90, St Charles County Police Department in Missouri has said. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Back Tracks: Chuck Berry’s influence is out of this world

Back Tracks is a weekly music column that studies the past, revisiting tunes that may be old but still

resonate today.

Whenever a great musician dies, it is very easy to shower him or her with exaggerated praise; it is the respectful thing to do. This past Saturday night, news spread of the death of rock ‘n’ roll legend Chuck Berry, but there is no amount of glory one can bestow on him that would be too over-the-top.

From his famous “duck walk” he conjured up as a child, to being one of the first musicians inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame upon its inception, Berry was one of the first true eclectic performers. From Jimi Hendrix to Bob Dylan to the Beatles, some of the greatest musicians from the 1960s and on have Berry to thank for creating some of the first pure rock ‘n’ roll tracks.

His greatest achievement, however, may be floating light years away in space.

When the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts were launched into the abyss in 1977, American astronomer Carl Sagan pushed hard to include the Voyager Golden Record onboard. The record demonstrates the diversity of life and culture on Earth to other life forms or future humans through images, natural sounds, and even a message from then-President Jimmy Carter. Some of those sounds are music.

Being included on the Voyager record has to be one of the greatest honors for a musician. Twenty-seven songs across Eastern and Western cultures spanning 90 minutes were selected to try to connect with and impress extraterrestrial life. There are four American songs included on the 90-minute music section of the Voyager record, and Chuck Berry authored and performed one of them.

“Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry (1958)

When aliens (hopefully) make contact with either of the Voyager spacecrafts and spin the Golden Record, Berry’s ripping, raucous guitar will be one of the sounds they encounter. For its highly recognizable sound and influence on rock, “Johnny B. Goode” was included on the record as Earth’s finest representation of rock ‘n’ roll music.

As decades pass, Berry’s heart-racing hit is still considered among the top 10 songs of all time on many lists including The Rolling Stone’s top 500 songs of all time. The sped-up rhythm, Berry’s yelling but not quite screaming and hard-hitting guitar solo defined the skeleton of the rock ‘n’ roll radio single for years. It is a slightly autobiographical tale of Berry and his aspirations to someday have his name up in lights.

It has been argued that many rock ‘n’ roll artists after him copied his sound without proper credit. Even “Back to the Future,” when traveling back to 1955, poked fun with Berry’s cousin phoning him about a breakthrough sound after Michael J. Fox’s character performed the song at his parents’ high school dance.

However, Berry’s music has been religiously played time and time again by the great rockers to follow him. “Johnny B. Goode” is an American classic, and classics are often referenced throughout history.

The extraterrestrials who first discover “Johnny B. Goode” might not be ready for it, but there is no doubt their kids will love it.

“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson (1927)

One of the greatest musical displays of raw human emotion, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” was practically a no-brainer to be launched into space. The song, performed by Blind Willie Johnson on a bottleneck slide guitar, captures his frequent battles with homelessness and the crucifixion of Christ all without saying one word. It is Johnson’s haunting guitar and painful moans that capture the morbid situations mentioned above.

For those reasons, Johnson’s song should be one of the easiest to understand for life forces unfamiliar with Earth’s musical tastes. There are no language barriers here: just a man trying to describe the feeling of having the night set on him without having a roof for protection. Johnson did not get the recognition he deserved in his time and died homeless.

The cause of Johnson’s blindness is not 100 percent known, but historians have agreed that he was injured after his stepmother splashed him with lye water during an argument with his father. Regardless, the handful of accounts that have been brought up surrounding Johnson’s life are sad, lonely stories; reports that give light as to why he made blues music. An alien, upon discovering “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” should never aspire to feel the way Johnson felt at the time he recorded the track.

After a sullen three minutes, the last chord strikes a ray of hope. In order to continue living, Johnson had to confront his pain somehow, and he did it through music. That is definitely a message Earthlings should want to get across to other life forms.

Hopefully it does some day.

One comment

  1. Blind Willie Johnson neither suffered bouts of homelessness nor died homeless. Though Dark Was the Night has been defined as a song about lack of shelter (and also included on Voyager with this incorrect interpretation) based on the hymns title. The words to this Easter lament were so familiar to Johnson and his listeners that they had no need of being sung:

    Dark was the night, and cold the ground
    on which the Lord was laid;
    his sweat like drops of blood ran down;
    in agony he prayed.

    “Father, remove this bitter cup,
    if such thy sacred will;
    if not, content to drink it up
    thy pleasure to fulfill.”

    Go to the garden, sinner, see
    those precious drops that flow;
    the heavy load he bore for thee;
    for thee he lies so low.

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