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Modern Songwriting starts with Chuck Berry

Welcome to a weekly blog I’ll be writing on songwriting- and music-related subjects!

I couldn’t think of a better place to start than with Chuck Berry.  It’s easy to take him for granted at this point in musical history… but that would be a mistake.

Even though a lot of his songs (like Johnny B. Goode) have been played to death, usually badly, most of his songs still give great pleasure and are not only foundations of modern songwriting but also beacons of just plain great songwriting.

The lyrics of Johnny B. Goode are exemplary.  The first verse –

Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play a guitar just like a ringing a bell

* First of all, and probably most importantly to all lyrics – and of course this doesn’t come off very clearly on paper (or monitor) – the sheer singability of the words; the way they flow out rhythmically, their velocity and momentum, the way they match the melody.

* The storytelling… This verse is like a camera starting with a shot from the sky and ending on a tight close up – in 6 lines:  The state… the nearest big city… the woods by the evergreens… the log cabin (made of earth and wood)… and finally, living there… Johnny – he’s didn’t do well in school but… the very last phrase tells us the crucial thing we need to know about him (in this song) – He could play a guitar just like ringing a bell.

* As in most well-written songs, the strongest notes/spots in the melody are where the important storytelling (and great to sing) words and rhymes go –

Louisiana – New Orleans
woods – evergreens
log cabin… earth and wood
country boy… Johnny B. Goode
never ever learned… read and write so well
play a guitar… ringing a bell

It’s all there.  The essential parts of the lyric story are in the key spots in the melody (and vice-versa).

Verse 2 –

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track
The engineers would see him sitting in the shade
Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made
People passing by they would stop and say
Oh my that little country boy could play

* All of the previously mentioned qualities hold true in this verse (as in the whole song).  But take the opportunity here to notice the verbs – carry. sit, strumming, passing… – words of action that create and add to the drive, vividness, and activity.

* There are visual and tactile details in every line.  You see and feel every detail of the story.

Finally, the wrap-up of the story, the flash-forward, the 3rd verse –

His mother told him “Someday you will be a man,
And you will be the leader of a big old band.
Many people coming from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun goes down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight.”

Chuck Berry reinvented the 12 bar blues form for his own purposes, adding simple, catchy, and repetitive Choruses (like ‘Go Johnny Go Go’) to the verbal music, brilliant wordplay, and inspired storytelling of his Verses.

6 responses to “Modern Songwriting starts with Chuck Berry”

  • Love this breakdown and analysis of “Johnny,” especially the camerawork metaphor re: the first verse. Niiiiiice.

  • This is very fascinating, You’re an overly professional blogger. I have joined your rss feed and stay up for searching for more of your fantastic post. Also, I have shared your site in my social networks!

  • Ben

    Yes i forgot about CHUCK BeRRY, he is a great artist, great song songwriter

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