Let Me Make It to the Telephone

‘Promised Land’ was written by Chuck Berry and released in December of 1964, after he was let out of prison for violating the Mann Act.  This was a trumped-up charge concerned with him helping this underage girl cross State lines which they said was for immoral purposes.  This 1910 federal law which prohibited the transport of women across state lines for immoral purposes was often used to target people for their race or political views.  The charge against Berry came after a 14-year-old Apache Indian traveled with him from Texas to Missouri.  The girl claimed to be older and whatever they did was consensual.  Berry frequently had white women visiting his hotel room, which you can imagine was frowned upon by many Southerners, and that made him a target.

‘Promised Land’ came out on his album St. Louis to Liverpool and it was written to the melody of ‘Wabash Cannonball’, an American folk song.  The song peaked at #41 in the Billboard charts and it went to #26 in the UK.  Berry wrote this while he was in prison, after borrowing an atlas from the prison library to detail the journey that is taken in this song.  This song follows the same tragic and historic journey that was taken a few years earlier on a bus, but the song has a happier ending.  Chuck Berry refers to himself as “the poor boy” as he is on this journey from Norfolk, Virginia, to the “Promised Land”, his final destination in Los Angeles, California.  He mentions various cities in Southern states that he passes through while riding on a Greyhound bus, which breaks down leaving him stranded in Birmingham.

He catches a train from there to New Orleans and then he asks for help to get to Houston and he phrase “Sure as you’re born” which is like saying, “As sure as the sun comes up in the east, or in the morning”, or “As sure as the sky is blue”, or “As sure as water is wet” or “As sure as fire is hot”, is used for these people that help him.  They buy him a silk suit, put luggage in his hand and now he is flying on a jet to California, relaxing and eating a T-bone steak, and it don’t get much better than that.  The first thing he does when he lands is to call home and tell his family that he made the trip safely.  His journey from Raleigh, N.C., through Charlotte, North Carolina, Atlanta Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama to New Orleans is very eventful.  From there, he goes to Houston, where the people take real good care of him and get him a plane ticket to Los Angeles.  Upon reaching the promised land, he breaks into a chorus of “Swing low sweet chariot”, because he felt like it was coming for to carry him home when he reached his destination.

Chuck Berry was a songwriter/performer who broke racial barriers while addressing his songs to teenage America (white and black) in the 1950s.  It is impossible to conjure up a mental image of Chuck Berry without an electric guitar in his hands.  Berry was hailed for his ability to tap into the psyche of the recently invented “teenager” (both white and black), and it wasn’t easy breaking down the color line back in these days.  This was written only a couple years after the Freedom Rides, the second stage (after the lunch counter sit-ins) of the student-led desegregation struggle in the South.  Black and white activists rode interstate buses through the segregated South and met savage reprisals.  The first Ride, on two buses, started on May 4, 1961 and made it through Virginia and North Carolina okay, but it ended up being attacked by an armed lynch mob, and one bus was firebombed.  The second bus was permitted to continue to Birmingham after the Freedom Riders on it were also savagely beaten.  There they were met by a racist mob organized by the KKK and Police Commissioner Bull Connor which laid into them with baseball bats, pipes and chains.  This was the attack that made national news, so Chuck’s words “left us all stranded/ In downtown Birmingham” holds a lot more meaning than just a bus breaking down because of mechanical problems.  Some of the Freedom Riders were arrested in Charlotte, and they were attacked in Rock Hill, and their buses were firebombed in Alabama, and a mob attacked them in Birmingham.  The story behind the song has a lot to do with the struggle for equality that blacks were going through at this time.

Aw, get on it

I left my home in Norfolk, Virginia, California on my mind
I straddled that Greyhound and rode him into Raleigh and on across Caroline
We had motor trouble that turned into a struggle halfway across Alabam’
Well, that ‘hound broke down and left us all stranded in downtown Birmingham

Right away, I bought me a thorough train ticket right across Mississippi clean
I was on that midnight flyer out of Birmingham, Smokin’ into New Orleans
Somebody help me get out of Louisiana, just help me get to Houston town
There are people there who care a little about me
And they won’t let the poor boy down, take it

Sure as you’re born, they bought me a silk suit, put luggage in my hand
And I woke up high over Albuquerque on a jet to the promised land
A-workin’ on a T-bone steak à la carte, flyin’ over to the Golden State
When the pilot told us in 13 minutes, he would set us at the terminal gate
Swin’ low, chariot, come down easy, Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines and cool your wings and let me make it to the telephone

Los Angeles, get me Norfolk, Virginia, Tidewater 4-1009
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’
And the poor boy is on the line

A-workin’ on a T-bone steak à la carte, flyin’ over to the Golden State
When the pilot told us in 13 minutes, he would set us at the terminal gate
Swin’ low, chariot, come down easy, Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines and cool your wings and let me make it to the telephone

Los Angeles, give me Norfolk, Virginia, Tidewater 4-1009
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’
And the poor boy is on the line

Written for Song Lyric Sunday where the theme is Communication, Information, News, Telephone suggested by Di of pensitivity101.

22 thoughts on “Let Me Make It to the Telephone

  1. I know this song by Elvis because as a kid that is the version I heard….great song…Chuck did a great job writing this one.

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