Sweet Little Sixteen
by Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry's writing is poetry, plain and simple. He was one of the earliest rockers to write his own songs—an example of a singer-songwriter before the days of Dylan—and from "Maybelline" to "Sweet Little Sixteen," his songs resonated with teen audiences and made a point with older crowds at the same time.
"As long as the music has something to do with your walk of life, I think that people will listen. So that's why I wrote about schools…and I wrote about cars…and I wrote about love," said Berry. The point here is that he was able to write about whatever topic he chose, not limited to personal experience or rote heartbreak themes.
Berry's song writing skills didn't come easy. While he was finishing up his high school diploma in prison, he studied poetry on his own volition, learning a wide array of poems by heart. "Poetry is my bloodflow," he has said—and friends and interviewers attest that he can still recite Longfellow and Whitman decades later.
One of the notable ways that poetry influenced Chuck Berry's songwriting in "Sweet Little Sixteen" is his use of geographic locations. This trope—listing off places cross-country road-trip style—is very American, dating back at least to the geographically oriented poetry of poets like Walt Whitman. Cities are a lasting theme in lots of modern poetry, and it could be argued that Whitman made writing about city and state names into a sort of American poetry tradition. He was followed by everyone from Chuck Berry to Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who honored the eclectic nature of American culture and geography in his controversial works. Other American authors whose works explore the idea of cross-country travel include John Steinbeck, who wrote about Oklahoma families traveling West during the Great Depression in The Grapes of Wrath, and Mark Twain, whose Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses a series of voyages through the American South to talk about slavery and social issues.
Berry's songwriting is a bit less risk-taking than Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg (and a bit less literary than Steinbeck or Twain), but it exists in the same spirit: celebrating the wilder side of U.S. culture and reveling in the broad geographic span of the country.