Chuck Berry, Marty McFly and a Debate of Temporal Aesthetics

[sub]DISCLAIMER: This is going to sound really, really weird. Don’t worry, I haven’t seen this movie one too many times… this is more of a mindbender than anything.[/sub]

In Back to the Future, who is the author of “Johnny B. Goode?” I mean this more aesthetically than legally, though if a lawyer wants to weigh in on that angle, go ahead.


  1. Marty McFly performed it first, temporally.

  2. The only other person with a reasonable claim to its authorship–Chuck Berry–learned it from McFly.

This would seem to indicate that Marty is the author. However:

  1. Similar to #2, Marty McFly learned it from someone else, namely Chuck Berry. :smack:

  2. I doubt that, if pressed, Marty McFly would claim authorship over it.

  3. I also doubt that Chuck Berry would, but maybe I’m naive.

I submit that “Johnny B. Goode” in fact has no author.



PS: Mods, feel free to move to CS if it’s more appropriate…

Ooo, temporal paradoxes. I read a Sherlock Holmes short story once in which Professor Moriarity is accidentally stranded in Shakespeare’s day. He inserts himself as the Third Bandit in the very first performance of, I believe, Macbeth, using his lines as he recalls them from the play. In a letter he leaves for Holmes to read in his era, Moriarity challenges Holmes with a similar question: who wrote the Third Bandit’s lines?

If such a situation were possible, I’d answer either God or, in the OP’s example, a Chuck Berry from an alternate timeline, the one that Marty comes from. Whether that Chuck still exists or not depends on whether you subscribe to the BttF model of alternate timelines (in which the time traveler jumps timelines and stays in that changed world permanently, which begs the question of whether there’s a timeline in which Marty forever vanishes) or the Marvel comics model (in which the time traveller automatically jumps into an alternate timeline when he time travels, then returns to his original timeline when he goes, er, back to the future, thus never seeing the results of any changes made in the past).

Phew. Make sense?

Sorry to shot this down, but I remember Chuck Berry never replied to the relative on the phone. Since the movie never did go back on Berry’s reply, any assumption is possible! To prevent paradoxes, Berry could have replied something like:

“That sounds terrible!
(Remember that Marty began to go metal just at the time of the call)
It sounds like a number I am working on right now! –Berry’s inspiration was his first trip to Louisiana-
(Waits for the end of the piece…)
You call me for that?!? I can do a lot better!! Who is this hillbilly?”

I believe this paradox was first formulated in terms of “the unemployed artist”. You go back in time and visit your favourite artist when he/she was young and find them churning out rather uninpiring bilge. You show them your copies of their later work, and they copy these down mechanically, becoming famous for art nobody created.

The Terminator films follow the same paradox, since nobody invented the cyberdine(?) chip.

Erratum: uninspiring

I believe the “many universes” formulation of time travel sidesteps this issue since the “act of inspiration” still exists, but in another universe.

Heinlein does this sort of thing rather well; I remember reading one of his stories whereby a man acquires a time machine by his future self coming back and giving it to him (his future self already possessing it for the same reason).

I’ve heard this sort of thing may not be impossible, so long as the “item” in question being transferred is not perishable at all.

Surely (entering into the spirit of things) Chuck simply heard the “sound/feel” of the piece that Marty was playing over the phone - it wouldn’t have been a clear enough listen to make out words/notes/chords…

I contend that there is no paradox - unless you choose to say that the piece of music was its own inspiration!!

Grim :wink:

[a chorus of windchimes]

“He is the closed circle. He is returning to the beginning.”


In the BttF version of time travel, alternate timelines are clearly possible, as the hellish version of 1985 we see in BttF2 demonstrates.

In Timeline-A, in which George and Lorraince are married, but George is a hopeless dweeb whose car Biff wrecks, the song was written by Chuck Berry.

In Timeline-B, in which George and Lorraine are married and Biff runs a car detailing service, the song was credited to Chuck Berry-B, but he never wrote it. He heard it over the phone from his cousin Marvin. The actual author of the song is still Chuck Berry-A, but as far as Chuck Berry-B knows, he’s taking credit for the work of talented musician Calvin Klein.

  • Rick

I always thought that what Berry copied from McFly was the style of music, not the song itself.

tagos: The song Johhny B. Goode waas made famous by Chuck Berry. The actual song, with the words Marty sang.

Except that CHuk didn’t get to hear the whole song. In fact, I think he only got about half of it or less…

well the relative does say that Chuck Berry was looking for a “sound” so it could be that Johnny B. Goode inspired itself.

The story is called By His Bootstraps.

The same paradox is used in Star Trek IV, when the formula for transparent aluminium is given to the 20th century manufacturer because the 25th century astronaut, who uses it in his line of work, has need of it. But who discovered it?

No, you’ve got that wrong. Scotty gave the formula for transparent aluminum to the plastics manufacturer in exchange for 6" thick Plexiglas to create a whale tank in their ship.

This paradox is never satisfactorily explained in the movie (although they do allude to it: “How do we know he didn’t invent the thing?”).

There’s a good discussion of temporal anomalies in time travel movies here.

Hey! You’re just the Aide, not the Ambassador! I’m tellin’ Kosh!