The Promised Land

Chuck Berry is one of those musicians who has not really endured in name, although his musical style and his songs certainly have. This is of course completely undeserved, but whoever said life was fair?

He was an amazing songwriter and performer and produced one of the classic riffs of rock ‘n roll (partly “borrowed” from T-Bone Walker), which you can hear with variations on tunes such as Johnny B. Goode. A relatively unknown cover is done by Jimi Hendrix at approximately double speed. The better known reggae version by Peter Tosh, where Johnny is displaced from his native Louisiana to Jamaica, is too laid back to include the staccatto riff. It doesn’t work so well for me, too much THC-induced reverb, and it missed the whole point: Johnny could play guitar just like a ring in a bell, as Hendrix so clearly demonstrated. If you like rock n’ roll, and never want to pick up a guitar again (even a Wii Guitar Hero) suffer the singing and enjoy the storm.

But actually, the original lyric was “like a-ringin’ a bell”, and Berry was doing variations of his trademark duck walk while plucking his Gibson guitar way back in 1958. Uncle Chuck had all the kudos of a bluesman, including prison terms for armed robbery, tax evasion, and transporting a 14 year old across a state line. The latter presumes underage sex, and of course I despise the idea. But back in those days it was pretty common to see songs with titles like Only Sixteen, released by Sam Cooke (of Wonderful World fame), and Berry’s own Sweet Little Sixteen, of which a “white boy” version appeared called Surfin’ USA, recorded by a little-known California band.

During my foray to Chicago to promote The India Road I was at one of the talks at the “Is Sex Necessary” session and I asked specifically about underage sex in historical fiction. My point was (now reinforced by my recent trip to Thailand) that we can find parts of the world today doing exactly what we did in Europe five centuries ago. Religious intolerance, abject poverty, and abuse of young girls. Even for nobility, in those times puberty was pretty much the age of consent. Engagement across ages was extremely common in royalty. Let me quote you an excerpt from The India Road:

In 1455, the Perfect Prince’s aunt, Joana of Portugal, had married Henry IV of Castile and moved to Madrid. Arranged marriages were commonplace among royalty. Henry’s situation was less common. He had married Blanca of Navarra when he was fifteen. She had remained a virgin on her wedding night, and for the rest of the marriage. After thirteen years of unconsummated matrimony, the king obtained an annulment. He was then married to Joana…

The feisty Portuguese princess was sixteen years old; Henry was thirty. By the time a daughter was born to them in 1462, Joana of Portugal had been engaged for some time in a torrid affair with a Castilian nobleman, Beltrán de la Cueva. Henry of Castile was widely rumored to be impotent, and baby Joana was derisively nicknamed La Beltraneja.

The poor child grew up in Spain, the legitimate heir to the Castilian throne, and the Perfect Prince’s father, Afonso V, whose wife had died in 1455, was betrothed to her in an effort to secure the crown of Castile by marriage. They were wedded on May 30, 1475. The princess was only thirteen, the Portuguese king an aging man of forty-three. The marriage vows were never consummated.

The panel informed me that, at the cost of historical realism, any sex scenes in these torrid Tudor novels were always between consenting adults. After all, the cruelty, horror, and sheer fright of living in those days is heavily sanitized if it is to occupy real estate on your nightstand. If you really want a suitable comparison, trading time for space, I recommend a stint in the Congo, or perhaps North Korea or Myanmar.

The problem is that in the fifteenth century a forty year old man was old, just as is the case in parts of Africa today. An elephant lives as long as its teeth, and by age forty we are expected to have reproduced and exercised parental care to a due degree. Therefore we cease to have a biological purpose. Period.

Africa was also the birthplace of the ancestors of the men and women who brought us blues, rock ‘n roll and samba (still called semba in Angola), in a period that followed the initial journeys of discovery of the Portuguese and lasted until slavery was abolished. I recently discovered a map with estimated fluxes of Africans to the New World, over a period of two hundred years.

Estimated slave traffic to the Americas (1650-1860). Image from

If these numbers are correct, the upper figure of 15 million gives roughly 75,000 per year. If we assume a vessel would hold up to five hundred slaves, that works out to 150 ships a year, one every two days. Another interesting  aspect is the flux dynamics: the vast majority is equally divided between the Caribbean islands and Brazil. So Johnny B. Goode probably went from Jamaica to Louisiana, rather than the other way round.

The map illustrates the huge uncertainty in our estimates: between 10 and 15 million is a 50% error relative to the lower value. It also shows the distribution of activities, and in particular that many of these poor people were compelled to work in mines. As we see from the news, mining is extremely dangerous. The Chileans were lucky to get out. But in China alone there were two thousand mine-related deaths last year. That kind of number is just a statistic, but this was good TV. So good in fact, that disputes are arising (and will escalate) among the miners who rather than digging for copper-gold are now mining for “plata” as they attempt to sell their exclusives to the world’s media.

I called this post the Promised Land, a lesser-known Chuck Berry song, with no famous covers. Berry wrote plenty about life’s trivia, but some of his lyrics and the way they bring in humor and world events are terrific. In Brown-Eyed Handsome Man he writes:

Venus de Milo was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
She lost both arms in a wrestling match
To win a brown-eyed handsome man

In the Promised Land, Berry highlights the US that he knows as being rather less than the land of milk and honey.

Speaking of promises, I promised you some terrible music, so I leave you with Twist ‘n Shout Thai style. The song is not by Chuck Berry, but his prints are all over the crime scene. The original Beatles version was wonderful, this is murder one.


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