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Chuck Berry – All Things Shall Pass Away

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

One of America’s greatest songwriters and poets, Chuck Berry, has died at age 90.

Chuck Berry, one of the originators of Rock and Roll along with Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and other great R&B artists, has passed away at age 90, apparently as a result of natural causes. Through a long and turbulent life, Berry remained insanely prolific, and for many years criss-crossed the country doing a seemingly endless series of one night gigs with pickup bands at local clubs, after his peak commercial years passed in the early 1960s.

But though he went through many hard times, Berry was above all a survivor, and a poet, hardened by years on the road, someone who realized that he had to take care of himself first  - that no one else could be relied upon, and that, as he often reflected, “all things shall pass away” – that fame, fortune, and even difficult times are all transitory. Something new will happen every day which can change one’s fortunes, one’s life, one’s outlook.

In 1987, longtime fan Keith Richards arranged for Berry to celebrate his life and work on the occasion of his 60th birthday in the film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (directed by Taylor Hackford), during which Berry, ever the perfectionist when it came to his work, proved uncompromising and even difficult during filming, insisting that everything had to be just right. The film is an amazing and surprisingly unvarnished look at the entire process of making music.

During the filming, Hackford captured Chuck Berry reciting the poem “All Things Shall Pass Away” by Theodore Tilton, as Robbie Robertson gently accompanies him on acoustic guitar. The poem had been taught to Berry by his father, and in this clip, which you can see by clicking here or on the image above, Berry recites the poem from memory, in a deeply moving performance. For someone who had seen so much change during his lifetime, so many people come and go in the rock & roll world, it certainly has a great deal of resonance.

Once in Persia reigned a king,
Who upon his signet ring
Graved a maxim true and wise,
Which, if held before his eyes,
Gave him counsel at a glance
Fit for every change and chance.
Solemn words, and these are they;
“Even this shall pass away.”

Trains of camels through the sand
Brought him gems from Samarcand;
Fleets of galleys through the seas
Brought him pearls to match with these;
But he counted not his gain
Treasures of the mine or main;
“What is wealth?” the king would say;
“Even this shall pass away.”

‘Mid the revels of his court,
At the zenith of his sport,
When the palms of all his guests
Burned with clapping at his jests,
He, amid his figs and wine,
Cried, “O loving friends of mine;
Pleasures come, but do not stay;
‘Even this shall pass away.’”

Lady, fairest ever seen,
Was the bride he crowned the queen.
Pillowed on his marriage bed,
Softly to his soul he said:
“Though no bridegroom ever pressed
Fairer bossom to his breast,
Mortal flesh must come to clay –
Even this shall pass away.”

Fighting on a furious field,
Once a javelin pierced his shield;
Soldiers, with a loud lament,
Bore him bleeding to his tent.
Groaning from his tortured side,
“Pain is hard to bear,” he cried;
“But with patience, day by day,
Even this shall pass away.”

Towering in the public square,
Twenty cubits in the air,
Rose his statue, carved in stone.
Then the king, disguised, unknown,
Stood before his sculptured name,
Musing meekly: “What is fame?
Fame is but a slow decay;
Even this shall pass away.”

Struck with palsy, sore and old,
Waiting at the Gates of Gold,
Said he with his dying breath,
“Life is done, but what is Death?”
Then, in answer to the king,
Fell a sunbeam on his ring,
Showing by a heavenly ray,
“Even this shall pass away.”

–Theodore Tilton

It’s a great way to remember Chuck Berry – an American original, a true artist of rock & roll.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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