Anything about Elvis
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A story that says it all!

Sat Dec 24, 2005 5:03 am

It's old, but it was worth posting since some here have an issue with this subject.

Aug. 4, 1997
Writer: Karen Meisenheimer
Source: William McKeen, (812) 339-4361


GAINESVILLE --- Thousands will come from all over the world, gathering in the sweltering Memphis, Tenn., heat. Some will bring flowers, others will offer teddy bears and many will hold back tears as they make their pilgrimage to the grave of Elvis Aaron Presley.

After all, he wasn't only the King of Rock n' Roll. At least one researcher believes Presley played a pivotal role in the American civil rights movement.

"With his very first recording in 1954, Presley did something no one had ever done before. He brought black culture and white culture together on one record," said William McKeen, a University of Florida journalism professor and co-author of the soon-to-be-released "Norton Book of Rock n' Roll."

Aug. 16 will mark the 20th anniversary of Presley's death of a heart attack at his Graceland mansion. Despite the decades that have passed since the world learned of The King's affinity for prescription drugs and fatty foods, the Elvis mystique is stronger than ever.

McKeen says Presley should be taken seriously as an historical character. In fact, like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis should be considered among America's most influential civil rights figures, said McKeen, who teaches an honors class in rock n' roll history at UF.

Presley's first single from Sun Records included the bluegrass standard "Blue Moon of Kentucky" on one side, while a black blues song called "That's All Right (Mama)" was on the other. That original blend of styles, combining Presley's love for gospel music and black musicians with country-and-western, came to be called rock n' roll.

McKeen said Presley should be remembered for what he did both musically and culturally and not for the absurdity many today associate with him, such as overeating, bad movies and an eccentric lifestyle.

"Everyone is aware of Elvis as a character," McKeen said. "But he is important way beyond the music. He was part of a movement to knock down barriers in society."

In the 1950s, radio, like most of society, was segregated. McKeen believes Presley's reinterpretation of rhythm and blues led his listeners to the original sources and opened the door for black artists to reach a wide audience. People who heard Presley's music wanted to hear more.

"Elvis arrived on the scene during a key moment in popular culture, when Martin Luther King was beginning to be a player and when the Supreme Court outlawed classroom segregation," McKeen said. "By following this pattern of combining black music with white, Elvis helped to open people's minds to other cultures."

As for explaining the Elvis mystique and why, 20 years after his death, Presley shows no sign of fading from the country's cultural consciousness, scholars seem to agree on one thing: He was a truly American product.

"Elvis was the greatest and the worst this country has to offer," McKeen said. "On one hand, he was the true American dream, born into horrible poverty and becoming one of the most famous faces on the planet. On the other hand, Elvis squandered his talents and grew more erratic in his later years."

David Kushner, a professor of music who directs the music history program at UF, agrees that Presley had a unique ability to reinterpret music from a wide variety of styles.

"Elvis was one of the great eclectics of the 20th century," Kushner said. "He took what was around him at the time and put his own personality to it."

"In a way, Elvis was of the same ilk as Brahms or even Bach," he said. "They were artists who melded together a variety of styles and made it better."

Since Presley's death, more than 1,400 newspaper stories and 300 books in nine languages have been written about the legendary performer.

"He's had a great life in the past 20 years," McKeen said. "But for all the Elvis scholars, tacky souvenirs and sightings, it always goes back to one thing: the music. In 100 years, people will still talk about Elvis Presley."

Sat Dec 24, 2005 5:10 am

Here's another one, this one is from Race, Rock, And Elvis.

Working Class Hero

"Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant sh*t to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain."
— Public Enemy

"Elvis didn't steal any music from anyone.He just had his own interpretation of the music he'd grown up with.... I think Elvis had integrity."
— B.B. King

Craig Werner has stated that "if Elvis was simple he was the most complex form of simple there is." Equally complex are the issues raised by Race, Rock, and Elvis. A spirited defence of Elvis as an artist of integrity forms the centre-piece of what is a detailed examination of the interplay between race, region and especially social class at a unique juncture in American life. Elvis and the arrival of rock'n'roll, Bertrand contends, caused a major shift in Southern thinking about "race" and added a generally ignored impetus to the success of the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, a failure to comprehend the specifics of white, working-class culture, coupled with misguided views about "popular music," fatally weakened any true understanding of that shift, both at the time and subsequently.

This is, as you may have guessed, a serious book. If Rock'n'Roll means innocence, fun, and American Graffiti-style nostalgia or a rebellion confined to the category of youth then this is not the book for you. Well, probably it is, but you won't like it. In a methodologically sophisticated and evidentially rich text, rock'n'roll and Elvis are used to examine some of the thorniest of issues. In the process the author offers some deeply revisionist readings of Southern society in the 1950s. Well-researched and closely argued, Bertrand is playing with fire and beneath the sober and scholarly veneer this a passionate and polemical piece of writing

But what is there to say about Elvis Presley that hasn't already been said? Well, how about calling him an "organic intellectual"? I don't remember that one from my uncle's fanzine collection. The use of such concepts, adapted from the writings of the Italian Marxist Gramsci, indicate that this volume emerges from and is primarily intended for the academic world. However, it is more accessible than one might imagine and the issues that it addresses should engage anyone interested in recent American social history.

Though it is implicit rather than explicit, much of this book is a step-by-step dismantling of one prominent reading of Elvis, and the dominant one within present day African-American thought. For many, Elvis represents nothing more than a latter-day blackface minstrel who made millions exploiting black cultural forms while the originators languished in obscurity. While paying due attention to the weight of racism in the evaluation of culture, time and again black popular belief and black scholars alike are ceded the moral high ground while their facts are challenged strongly. There is, after a while, something a little unsettling in this — and a faint whiff of condescension hangs in the air despite Bertrand's best efforts.

Bertrand's thesis greatly depends on stressing the importance of class rather than race and demonstrating that for Presley black culture was neither some exotic or simply exploitable Other but part of the cultural environment of his own background and of the post-war South. In this he is very convincing, and a distinguishing of Elvis from middle-class "White Hipsters" and anodyne cover artists (such as Pat Boone) is long overdue. The certainty of both Presley's non-imitativeness and his anti-racism is less secure than Bertrand's case suggests, and the gap between Presley's success and prestige and that of the Rhythm and Blues artists he admired is rather skated over, but on the whole he provides enough evidence to give most advocates of reductive readings pause to think. His polite demolition of Alice Walker's "Nineteen Fifty Five" is especially well-handled.

But Bertrand is not content to stop there. His grand ambition is to redeem, from the contempt in which they are generally held, the white working-class youngsters who formed the bulk of the early audience for rock'n'roll. Through the amalgam of musical forms and the synthesis of cross-cultural identities achieved by Presley (hence his position as organic intellectual) that young audience discovered a set of matrices within which a less a hate-filled and polarised set of attitudes could emerge. The author is surely correct in seeing the generational revolt as it hit the South as involving more than just teenage muscle-flexing — given the racial taboos the act of even listening to black music challenged. Bertrand reminds us that the fuss about depravity and delinquency was, of course, really a panic about racial mixing. Whether the changes in perception and consciousness were as great as the book suggests is open to doubt.

Much of the book depends on stressing the active relationship between popular culture and politics. This is handled in a way that is likely to be of least interest outside History and Cultural Studies departments. Bertrand is convinced of the importance of popular culture and writes with proselytising zeal on the matter. Things must be very different in Mr. Bertrand's neck of the woods, as to many readers he will appear to be shoving at an open door. The rampant populism coursing through many campuses — where to suggest that something might be crap, even if millions of people like it, condemns you as a miserable, bourgeois elitist — has obviously not flowed in Bertrand's direction. So we are treated to a painstaking — and well-argued, let it be said — defence of the study of popular music. Adorno, Riesman, and others are paraded before us and their arguments knocked down as if for the first time. Bertrand favours a British Cultural studies model, which is one which has tended to over-value the revolutionary potential of pop culture. It has however had the great advantage of widening the definition of what counts as culture and what counts as politically significant, both vital to the success of this project.

So, Elvis is duly rescued from the twin evils of high cultural scorn and ethnic absolutism and emerges as a vanguard figure in a generational reconfiguration of cultural identity. Elvis is in fact the other, non-racist side of the Southern coin. Bertrand offers a wide range of instances to disrupt our one-dimensional reading of the South and anyone who reads this work will hesitate before making sweeping generalisations in the area.

The scales, however, are tipped too heavily in Elvis' favour. Too little distinction is made between Elvis up to, say, 1957 and Elvis after, or between Elvis' attitudes and music and Elvis as viewed by his fans. The case for Presley as a radical and subversive force in the early years is well-made, but the ease with which the contradictions thrown up by rock'n'roll were then contained is underplayed. The reasons given for white attitudes in the '60s on race are feeble apologetics unworthy of the rest of the book. The Elvis of the '68 comeback concert (next to Sgt. Pepper's the most over-rated event in pop history) cannot bear the liberatory weight placed upon him by the author. In fact the very success of Elvis, it could be claimed, far from forcing whites to confront their racism allowed them to enjoy the music without having to have a black figure as a hero, not a unique occurrence in the annals of pop or jazz.

Despite these reservations Race, Rock, and Elvis is a fascinating read. It is packed with information and is refreshingly self-reflexive — all the objections I have raised are mentioned in the text. It is also a solid historical analysis. I would have liked Elvis' atypicality to have been stressed more, and Bertrand's thesis would have been stronger if he had thought about white Southerners who carried on playing R&B with black musicians into the '60s — the Stax and Muscle Shoals musicians, for instance. But, in reminding us just how incredible the rise of rock and roll as a social phenomenon was, and how deep were the issues it raised, it is a total success. B.B. King's take on Elvis' triumphs, and Elvis' credentials as a real working-class hero are greatly enhanced. The book also plays havoc with a whole heap of preconceptions about white teenagers in the South, which is welcome. Whether the black teenagers of the period would agree is another matter.

Sat Dec 24, 2005 5:16 am

I don't see how anybody could have a problem with this article, aside from the usual slights on Elvis you see in about everything the media does. Articles with this theme should get out more.

Edit: missed the second one, that's neat, too.

Sat Dec 24, 2005 6:04 am

If anything I am sure that Elvis would be embarassed by these articles.

He sang just what he liked with no pretentions about changing the morals of this world.

It should be pointed out that Bill Haley and Pat Boone scored nationwide hits with "black" music before Elvis was even heard of nationally.

It is distressing that 60 years on racism in music is still considered an issue.

To say that Elvis stole or did not steal "black" music is just as illogical as saying that Elvis stole or did not steal bluegrass music.

Music should not be race driven!

Sat Dec 24, 2005 6:27 am

I do agree, Kiwi, Elvis always just considered himself a singer. But the good thing in the articles, to me, is showing to a more mass public that Elvis had a hand in showing the (then predominant(sp)) racial-categorized opinion of music for what it was - and opened up generations of people to the fact that music has no color - and he did it just by being him, with no pretenses, it was just natural.. and something natural striking a chord in others is the most true (honest/innate?) form of social change. Or am I reading these articles wrong?

Tue Dec 27, 2005 12:28 pm

So can we let go of the racial issues now? As Morgan Freeman said we can only get rid of it by not talking about it. I agree.

Re: A story that says it all!

Tue Dec 27, 2005 2:08 pm

Lakeisha wrote:"With his very first recording in 1954, Presley did something no one had ever done before. He brought black culture and white culture together on one record," said William McKeen, a University of Florida journalism professor and co-author of the soon-to-be-released "Norton Book of Rock n' Roll."

"did something no one had ever done before." This is a fairytale. Jimmie Rodgers is a contempary of the Carter Family and together they're regarded as the founders of Country Music.

Well this Jimmie Rodgers had no one less than a young Louis Armstrong playing on some of his records. Jimmie Davis is another example of a Country artist who also recorded with black artists. This is 1920's / 1930's.

I didn't have to do any research to find this out, it's only something I stumbled upon in my own Cd collection (I'm a sucker for Bear Family box sets). Can I regard myself a professor now?

I guess if one really does some research quite a lot more examples will show up. To me it's very annoying to seek public approval for Elvis by telling pseudo scientific fairytales. Elvis made a difference because of the music he made. Besides that he was a human being with good and bad qualities. No need to make it any bigger than it was ever intended.

There are already some weirdos who worship Elvis as if he were a prophet or even God. I don't believe one single moment Elvis himself would have liked that.

Tue Dec 27, 2005 9:45 pm

If there's one thing black people will credit Elvis with then that is breaking racial boundaries and barriers and bringing blacks and whites together. That's something no one including Little Richard or James Brown or Hank Williams ever did before Elvis.

Sure Elvis wasn't the first white guy to sing black music, but he was the first to intergrate and have it played on black and white radio. It was also at that time that started the Civil Rights Movement of America.

So in reality, he was the first to bring black and white culture together. It's just that he got all the credit and his black idols didn't and that's why many blacks dislike him. But it'snot his fault.

Tue Dec 27, 2005 10:46 pm

Because black music was so segregated back in the 50's, it could of only been a white singer who could have brought both black/white music together.
Like today, only a black man would have gotten away with saying that black history month is 'ridiculous and should be stopped'.

Sadly as it is in today's society.If there was a fight between two men and one happened to be black.Most people would think they are fighting because of color.

Wed Dec 28, 2005 10:33 am

Lakeisha wrote:If there's one thing black people will credit Elvis with then that is breaking racial boundaries and barriers and bringing blacks and whites together. That's something no one including Little Richard or James Brown or Hank Williams ever did before Elvis.

I say again Jimmie Rodgers did. He was in no way a minor artist because he was one of the most popular in his time so it was quite something for him to record with black artists. Elvis did have more impact that's true but I think that has to do with the times back then. Elvis did it when TV boomed. Jimmie Rodgers didn't have that advantage. Besides that especially in the US peopel tend to forget very fast. I guess most people have forgotten about Jimmie Rodgers because it's considered old fashioned. Mind you we're talking the father of Country Music here. It's very easy to go back from Rockabilly to Honky Tonk (Ernest Tubb for instance) to Jimmie Rodgers. Same goes for Western Swing.

Here's some background info. I'm happy to provide more if you're interested;

James Charles Rodgers, known professionally as the Singing Brakeman and America’s Blue Yodeler, was the first performer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was honored as the Father of Country Music, “the man who started it all.” From many diverse elements—the traditional melodies and folk music of his southern upbringing, early jazz, stage show yodeling, the work chants of railroad section crews and, most importantly, African-American blues—Rodgers evolved a lasting musical style which made him immensely popular in his own time and a major influence on generations of country artists. Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Lefty Frizzell, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Tanya Tucker, and Dolly Parton are only a few of the dozens of stars who have acknowledged the impact of Jimmie Rodgers’s music on their careers.


Best known for his solo appearances on stage and record, he also worked with many other established performers of the time, touring in 1931 with Will Rogers (who jokingly referred to him as “my distant son”) and recording with such country music greats as the Carter Family, Clayton McMichen, and Bill Boyd, and in at least one instance with a jazz star of major national prominence, Louis Armstrong, who appears with him on “Blue Yodel No. 9.” (September 11, 1931) One of the first white stars to work with black musicians, Rodgers also recorded with the fine St. Louis bluesman Clifford Gibson.

Jimmie Rodgers’s impact on country music can scarcely be exaggerated. At a time when emerging “hillbilly music” consisted largely of old-time instrumentals and lugubrious vocalists who sounded much alike, Rodgers brought to the scene a distinctive, colorful personality and a rousing vocal style which in effect created and defined the role of the singing star in country music. His records turned the public’s attention away from rustic fiddles and mournful disaster songs to popularize the free-swinging, born-to-lose blues tradition of cheatin’ hearts and faded love, whiskey rivers and stoic endurance. Although Rodgers constantly scrabbled for material throughout his career, his recorded repertoire was remarkably broad and diverse, ranging from love songs and risque´ ditties to whimsical blues tunes and even gospel hymns. There were songs about railroaders and cowboys, cops and robbers, Daddy and Mother, and home—plaintive ballads with all the nostalgic flavor of traditional music but invigorated by a distinctly original approach and punctuated by Rodgers’s yodel and unorthodox runs, which became his trademarks.
—Nolan Porterfield

adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press