Have you ever noticed that a lot of songs have references to New Orleans in them?
Rock n' roll, the risqué new pop music of the 1950s, was packed with references to the southern origins of the music. Fats Domino, one of Berry's heroes, was born in New Orleans and did multiple songs about the city. It was Fats who put out one of the earliest rock and roll records in 1949. In the decades since, stars from Bruce Springsteen to Mos Def have made songs memorializing New Orleans.
But Berry had his own personal connection to the city, at the roots of his own history as an African American: "The gateway from freedom, I was led to understand, was somewhere 'close to New Orleans' where most Africans were sorted through and sold. I had driven through New Orleans on tour and I'd been told my great grandfather lived 'way back up in the woods among the evergreens' in a log cabin."
The idea of the log cabin is pretty much synonymous with the idea of humble origins.
Andrew Jackson was born in a log cabin, and elected president just a bit before the days of cut-throat campaigning in U.S. politics. It was only a little later, when William Henry Harrison ran for president in 1840, that the so-called "log-cabin mystique" became important to politicians' self-promotion. Harrison campaigned on a ticket that presented him as a man of the people, a log-cabin type guy even if he was not actually raised in a log cabin. And we hardly need to mention Abraham Lincoln, harbinger of both emancipation and Lincoln Logs. And as late as 1952, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson felt it was necessary to admit: "I wasn't born in a log cabin. I didn't work my way through school nor did I rise from rags to riches, and there's no use trying to pretend I did." (You might not have heard of Stevenson because he lost to conservative Dwight D. Eisenhower after being painted as "aristocratic and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people." If you've followed politics at all lately, the accusation should sound pretty familiar.)
Anyhow, you get the picture: log cabins mean starting from scratch in the American backwoods. And coming out of a log cabin to success as a politician or a superstar is the classic American fantasy of rags-to-riches success. Berry provides the setting for an American dream story.
When Berry first wrote the song, it was about a "colored boy"—an ancestor of Berry's.
"I revived [my grandfather's story] with a story about a 'colored boy named Johnny B. Goode,'" said Berry in his autobiography. But one of his goals was to write songs that would reach a broad audience including white people, so he changed the line: "My first thought was to make his life follow as my own had come along, but I thought it would seem biased to white fans to say 'colored boy' and changed it to 'country boy.'"
The rags-to-riches fantasy goes on, brushing against (and sometimes contradicting) Berry's personal history.
Chuck Berry did read and write, and he did both very well—he was raised in an up-and-coming part of St. Louis and his mother was college-educated. But he also never finished high school. He had his first brush with the law when he and some friends stole a car as teenagers, and he spent three years in prison when he should have been finishing up high school. It was during his time in juvie that he joined a gospel group, finished his GED and read some of the great poets including Wordsworth and Whitman on his own volition. Some songwriters, like the legendary Hank Williams, really do seem to pull their lyricism out of nowhere, but Berry's self-education probably helped him along as a writer.
Seeing a black musician's name in lights was still a novel idea when this song came out.
When we think names in lights, we think Las Vegas, or maybe a big old movie theater marquee somewhere. But in the 1950s, Las Vegas didn't even allow African American entertainers to dine at the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels as whites. And as a kid, Berry himself had been turned away from St. Louis' legendary Fox Theater, where he tried to see The Tale of Two Cities on his father's recommendation (as described on the DVD sleeve for Hail! Hail! Rock N' Roll). Still, Berry's career was on the rise when times were finally changing, and "Johnny B. Goode" was one of his many "cross-over hits" (hits by black artists that charted on the mainstream pop charts, garnering the attention of mostly-white audiences). "As it turned out, my name was in lights and it is a fact that 'Johnny B. Goode' is most instrumental in causing it to be," he says.
In 1986, Chuck Berry saw his name in lights at the very same Fox Theatre where he had been turned away. John Lennon's son, Julian, sang "Johnny B. Goode" with him, and Berry was also joined onstage by Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Etta James for his 60th birthday party.