Sonic Borders Virtual Panel: Shana Redmond, “The Sounds We Make Together: Chuck Berry’s Onomatopoeia”

by justindburton on February 20, 2013


IASPM-US and Sounding Out! are proud to bring you a collaboration that represents the first official panel of the the 2013 IASPM-US conference. While the rest of the conference will be held in Austin, TX (2/28-3/3), this first panel will feature six essays from Sounding Out! and four from IASPM-US during the months of January and February – a discourse in cyberspace that addresses and enacts the theme of the conference, “Liminality & Borderlands.” “Sonic Borders” features scholars from sound studies and popular music studies (many of whom work in both disciplines) discussing the two disciplines’ shared principles, disparate ideologies, and un/common purposes. The results should be exciting, as we invite not only the panelists to contribute their essays but also conference participants and readers of both sites to join in the conversation as we prod the connective tissue of popular music studies and sound studies.

Many thanks to the three co-founders of Sounding Out!Liana Silva, Managing Editor, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief, and Aaron Trammell, Multimedia Editor, as well as Kwame Harrison, chair of the IASPM-US conference program committee, and all of our panelists. A full schedule will be included at the bottom of each essay we publish to this site. Today’s post comes from Shana Redmond.

For a song often derided as trite, “My Ding-a-Ling” has much to tell us about the immediate post-civil rights sexual imagination. This imagination was not organized around the puerility of the title but rather the performer’s unique history, which he demonstrates through distinct musical and listening practices on stage. Chuck Berry’s 1972 live recording from the Lanchester Arts Festival in Coventry, England, models musical reciprocity as he sings both to and for his co-ed audience. His vocal of the onomatopoeia “ding-a-ling” resonates as a thinly veiled sexual reference while also lingering in the performance space as that which beckons the audience to sing-a(-)long, a practice that he regularly responds to with improvisatory comments. The “harmony” that he notes coming from two women attendees is announced by Berry in the moment as a sexual relation, not only with him as they sing with his “Ding-a-Ling” but also with each other, producing their own queer counterpoint. A number of asides within his performance exhibit the collaborative nature of Black music-making and the play involved in Black crossover to the mainstream. Berry’s project on stage that night also manifests a collision and collusion of popular music and sound studies by erotically traversing a number of performative and sonic boundaries through the exposure of alternative sexual relations.

The vehicle for Berry’s fugitive sonic-sexual practice is an otherwise straightforward tune. Originally composed by Fats Domino collaborator and hall of fame Black composer Dave Bartholomew, “My Ding-a-Ling” is melodically organized in E flat Major and remains faithful to it throughout the performance. A productive promiscuity is witnessed, however, in the song’s rhythms. It’s syncopation—full of dotted quarter and eighth notes—is not intended as a demonstration of technique, like ragtime, but instead is set as the sole variation within the novelty of a performance grounded by quarter notes and rests in the bass line. The song’s success in performance therefore is available only by feel, not by a strict rendering of the composition. The melody and the rhythm construct an unpretentious whole as his dedication to E flat comes alive through his off-time narrative line. Berry works against the three flats of the major key signature through the moderately paced tales of his well-kept male organ but the childlike simplicity of his storyline—even with the primacy of the double entendre “ding-a-ling”—masks a more progressive sexual politics than his conservative detractors once suggested.

The largely non-literate, oral traditions of Black music making is palpable in Berry’s rendition of the song, which ad libs and caters to the dynamics of performer and audience by making its finest interventions outside of the sheet music matrix. It is the spoken interludes within the song, in the snug spaces between the five short verses that Berry launches his greatest challenge to the societal common sense of race and sexuality, and public and private intimacy. He uses “My Ding-a-ling” as the frame for audience participation, which is then mobilized through his comments as the evidence of changing ideas and practices of sexual freedom. The audience, divided by gender, joins him in the chorus of the song, beginning with the women. The men quickly enter, asserting their manhood claims through a robust declaration of the star member. They proceed:

Women: “My”

Men: “…ding-a-ling”

Women: “My”

Men: “…ding-a-ling”

Women: “I want you to play with my”

Men: “…ding-a-ling.”


And repeat.

This lyrico-musical negotiation highlights the increasingly complicated nature of heterosexual exchange in the wake of women’s liberation movements. The women’s vocal may signal a proprietary relationship to their male lovers—“my ding-a-ling”—thereby advancing an agentive female sexuality that announces its desire and power on equal terms with or over the otherwise socially dominant male. The musical performance by these women, however, sounds less aggressive than enabling. Although the men offer only the caveman-like grunts of a single word, their entrance is the most anticipated and most important for the successful continuance of the song and its performance. The song orbits around this word, this image, demanding that all vocalists sing to its effigy. The only challenge to the density of male audience participation in the song is Berry himself. His interludes reorient the focus of the collective singing that still places heterosexual masculinity at its center. He begins to engage the audience after their “beautiful” rendition of the chorus. He announces his own effort at what Barry Shank may call popular music(al) listening—a project that shares in the common pleasures of difference—from the stage, asking, “You know what I heard?” His listening practice is here a democratic form, one of interaction that attends to how he sounds as well as the music made around and in response to him. From there he speaks to his audience, rupturing the boundaries of performer and audience by not only speaking directly to them in real time and in (but not of) the musical composition, but also by having listened to them as musical actors.

Beyond an acknowledgement of their agency within the cultural production, he uses their work as the evidence of sexual freedom. He continues, “I hear two girls over here singing in harmony. That’s alright, honey. This is a free country. Live like you wanna live, baby. Ain’t nobody gonna knock it, darlin’. [Audience applause.] Mmmhmmm. Yeah, freedom.” His comments centralize female sexual agency and same sex desire within the local musical event (as the “harmony”) while also implicitly acknowledging this sexual transgression as acceptable (“That’s alright…”) within a society that bases its reputation on claims of universal rights and access (“freedom”). These women become the diversifying element within the performance who make for both a more vibrant community and dynamic musical event. Berry follows this outing by saying, “Yes sir. There’s one guy over here singin’ ‘My’ [the women’s line], too. That’s alright, brother. Yes sir. You got a right, baby. Ain’t nobody gonna bother you.” Whether Berry is insinuating that this man is gay (for singing the women’s line) or a masturbator (because he sings alone, without a female prompt) is unclear, yet his different engagement with the act of music making is read by Berry as a dissimilarity that must be embraced, rather than dismissed or isolated.


Both of these examples highlight difference as a necessary element within the narrative construction of sonic sexualities. Berry’s attention to the queer sonic practice of members in his audience—whether it be same sex or solitary—opened up new possibilities in that musical space while also adjusting the relationship between the music and the world which received it. Berry’s comment, “You know there’s future [members of] Parliament out there singin’,” signals his acknowledgement that music can and does change society and politics by creating heterogeneous publics who find commonality through sonic practices. His Mann Act conviction thirteen years prior undoubtedly shaped that night’s engagement with race and sexuality; his performative play in the melodious memories of innocence and adventure through “My Ding-a-ling,” however, was not labored by that past but instead advanced a different present where sexual fugitivity was heard as the new horizon of freedom.

Sonic Borders Schedule

1/21 – Liana Silva, Sounding Out! – “I’m on My New York Sh*t”: Jean Grae’s Sonic Claims on the City

1/28 – Regina Bradley, Sounding Out! – I Like the Way You Rhyme, Boy: Hip Hop Sensibility and Racial Trauma in Django Unchained

2/4 – Marcus Boon, Sounding Out! – One Nation Under a Groove?: Music, Sonic Borders, and the Politics of Vibration

2/6 – Barry Shank, IASPM-US – On Popular Music Studies

2/11 – Tavia Nyong’o, Sounding Out! – Freedom Back: Sounding Black Feminist History, Courtesy the Artists

2/13 – Theo Cateforis, IASPM-US – No Control, or: How I Learned to Start Worrying about Sound

2/18 – Tara Betts, Sounding Out! – They Do Not All Sound Alike: Sampling Kathleen Cleaver, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis

2/20 – Shana L. Redmond, IASPM-US – The Sounds We Make Together: Chuck Berry’s Onomatopoeia

2/25 – Airek Beauchamp, Sounding Out!

2/27 – Devon Powers, IASPM-US

{ 1 comment }

Barry Shank February 20, 2013 at 4:32 pm

This is so smart. Exactly the kind of counter-intuitive and exactly right reading that comes from careful listening informed by a deep historical knowledge of the conventions and social contexts that combine in performance traditions. Thank you.

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