ON 5th MARCH 1960, the same day that his rival Elvis Presley was being discharged from the army and welcomed back as an all-American icon, Chuck Berry was on trial in St Louis, charged with transporting a 14-year-old Apache prostitute across state lines for “immoral purposes”.
While his motives may not have been entirely philanthropic, Berry had hired the girl to work at his Club Bandstand in St Louis selling photos, and when he sacked her she called the police and set in train the events
that led to Berry being charged under the Mann Act, the anachronistic law passed during the “white slavery” hysteria of 1910 and used thereafter as a catch-all means of harassment.
Though this first trial was disallowed for the blatant racism of the presiding judge, a second trial found Berry guilty, resulting in him spending two years in an Indiana prison. While inside, the singer continued to work on his songwriting, penning some of his most impressive, poetic pieces, including ‘You Never Can Tell’, ‘No Particular Place To Go’ and ‘Promised Land’, his own contribution to the road-song tradition begun in 1946 by Bobby Troup’s ‘Route 66’.
Unlike Troup, who wrote his enduring classic while driving from Pennsylvania to California, Berry had to rely on an atlas from the prison library to plot his itinerary, which takes his “poor boy” from Norfolk, Virginia, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, arrival point for many an African slave, across country to Los Angeles, via Charlotte, Atlanta, Birmingham and New Orleans — bypassing Rock Hill, South Carolina, where civil rights Freedom Riders had been attacked in 1961 — to Houston, where friends help him make the final-leg flight to LA. On arrival he phones home to let “the folks back home” know he has made it through: “This is the promised land calling, and the poor boy is on the line”.
Ironically, it was a bigger hit for Elvis Presley than for Chuck Berry, and it’s probable that Elvis’s 1974 cover was prompted by the surprise UK success, a year or two earlier, of Johnnie Allan’s version, a Cajun swamp-pop affair that marries the original’s Dyna-flow drive with the boisterous accordion of Belton Richard, while Allan’s strident Louisiana tones negotiate the evocative lyrical journey. The sudden popularity of the song came as a huge surprise to Allan and his Jin label boss Floyd Soileau, who had leased a cache of tracks to English broadcaster Charlie Gillett’s new label Oval Records, where ‘Promised Land’ became the standout track of the Cajun pop compilation Another Saturday Night, receiving so much airplay it was released as a single.
Re-released several times since then, it’s become a staple of the roots-rock repertoire, supplanting Berry’s original as the definitive version, and supplying a niche in music history for Johnnie Allan, the poor boy whose journey from Norfolk, Virginia to Los Angeles, California went via Ville Platte, Louisiana and London, England.
© Andy Gill, The Word, February 2011