Today, the late and great Elvis Presley celebrates his 78th birthday. In honor of the King of Rock, Consequence of Sound’s Henry Hauser takes a close look at the legend’s historically unprecedented cultural influences, specifically in relation to racial integration in American life. You’ll never listen to “All Shook Up” the same way again.
For Elvis Presley, shakin’ things up was about much more than a scandalously pulsating pelvis. At the very core of Elvis’ societal shakeup is a collective rejection of racial segregation. In this way, his defiance is wholly social; it brings individuals together in performance of communal change.
“The Hillbilly Cat” jolted 1950’s social norms into disarray by fusing the native music of poor whites and blacks into rock and roll. Presley’s blatant demonstration of cultural integration, through his ability to enhance black music with unbridled emotion and his audacity to transcend black-white rigidities onstage, was social revolt at its finest, and many whites saw Elvis’ music as an assault on the American ethos.
“Elvis drew power from black culture,” rock historian Greil Marcus argues, “he was not exactly imitating blacks…no white man had so deeply absorbed black music, and transformed it.” Presley covered black hits without sanitizing their sound. Instead of following Pat Boone’s lead by sweetening black music, the King fundamentally transformed the blues by adding electricity that rebelled against fate’s entrapment. Take Little Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train”, a blues tune mourning love lost to the locomotive beast. Parker stretches out his serious, solemn words as if they are his baby’s last memory. The tempo echoes the chugging of the train as the cool background saxophone complements Parker’s sense of hopelessness. As is innate to the blues, the guitar lead intones the inevitable persistent presence of pain and regret. The train once snatched up his baby and there was not a thing he could do about it. And, as he sadly admits, “it’s gonna do it again.” The tone is one of inevitable despair and loss as the train bulldozers its way towards a hazy, desolate station.
Elvis’ rendition of “Mystery Train” opens in a faster, more furious tempo. Although we know there is pain and despair, we feel more of the “anticipation” of the arriving train offering hope and relief. The vocal is uplifting and resonates with a fervor that is “churchlike” yet expresses a very definite sense of sexual angst. The guitar lead is more naughty and we know exactly what’s going to happen when the lovers are reunited. And the train “will never take his baby again,” a rejection of Parker’s melancholy admission of the train’s unchallenged dominance. Elvis’ rare musical approach, though rooted in a deep feeling for the blues, is something new and altogether unique. It maintains the dissatisfaction and abandonment of the blues, but weds it with the excitement and frustration of post-WWII Youth Culture. His music is so infectious, so beguiling, that whites kids and black kids could not resist being pulled in, headlong, as one.
Segregationists, however, were quick to recognize this impulse as deriving from black music, and, as such, a threat to Jim Crow. Racial Segregation is founded upon the core concept that races are fundamentally distinct, and cultural elements of each are mutually exclusive. This helps explain the prevalence of minstrelsy in America; it allowed white performers to steal and benefit from black music without bleeding it with white culture. Vaudevillians, with their faces painted black, were detached from white society, and thus could tread into the foreign realm of black culture in a condescending manner that was not threatening to their white audiences. Elvis’ interaction with the crowd, on the other hand, was more reminiscent of a preacher in a black congregation eliciting responses from the pews than a black-faced Vaudevillian. The King wasn’t just performing for his audience, he was performing with them.
Elvis was not the first to trample racial barriers without blackface, but his fluidity in doing so was unparalleled. The electricity of black music pulsed through The King’s body, bursting through his spastically jack hammering thighs. Racist powers censored Elvis by shooting him from the waist up on The Ed Sullivan Show, but this just added to Presley’s power. Elvis’ expressive, jagged contortions wrapped in flamboyant Beale Street influenced costume showed that white boys, too, could shake it.
On stage, the only thing that was clearly white about Elvis was the color of his face. His hair, his clothing, his voice, his facial expressions, his body language, everything had a confusing air of racial ambiguity. To segregationists, this ambiguity was absolutely terrifying. The border between black and white grayed, raising questions and fears regarding the strength and flexibility of Jim Crow’s boundaries. With a voice that echoed the gospel of church and a rousing physicality that appeared as a spiritual possession, Elvis personified a God that both blacks and whites had in common, thus striking at the foundation of Jim Crow by offering a chance for communal cultural reconciliation.