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Rock History 101: Elvis Presley Shakes Up American Culture

on January 08, 2013, 1:46pm

elvis presley 600 e1357669446534 Rock History 101: Elvis Presley Shakes Up American Culture

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 presley 500 e1357670433612 Rock History 101: Elvis Presley Shakes Up American Culture

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.


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Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello
January 10, 2013 at 4:08 am

Interesting article, save for Hauser’s mentioning Presley’s title as being self proclaimed. Hauser must have been thinking of Michael Jackson (LOL). Although the fans proclaimed him “King of Rock and Roll” as early as in the spring of 1956, it was the weekly “Variety” which first mentioned it, nationwide, as part of a story published in one of their November 1956 editions. Not that it matters, since Presley was the first to dislike his fans calling him “The King” , but “Variety” did so on account of him not being the first, or the best, or the mostest, but on account of his taking rock and roll, in the first 11 months of 1956 from being the third, or fourth most important music medium in 1955, in terms of sales (behind pop, country, and even classical music and Jazz) to being the first, thanks to his i) selling 10 million singles, EP’s and albums, ii) landing 5 number one singles and two number one albums on Billboard iii) selling 500,000 tickets to his live concerts, iv) drawing a cumulative viewership in excess of 270 million during the course of his 11 TV appearances, v) taking 9 million kids to theaters to see his first movie, and vi) selling some US$ 20 million (1956 dollars!!!), of articles bearing his name. That is for starters. Add that the sales of vi) guitars, viii) radio transistors, ix) personal record players, x) jukeboxes, xi) television ads (a US250,0000 increase,as reported by Ed Sullivan after Presley’s first appearance drew 62 million viewers), and even xii) televisions, doubled tripled , or quadrupled during those 11 months ( in respect of sales generated in 1955), and one gets an idea of how “big” Presley made Rock and Roll, as a medium, in 1956. It became the major music medium, that year, so, I guess it needed a “King”, and they named him THAT for having made it possible. It is as simple as that.

January 10, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Folks – today – may be underwhelmed by the fact that Elvis sold 10,000,000 records in 1956. We’ve seen bigger numbers for a few artists in the decades since. But what folks need to recall is that Elvis sold that many records in a year when the total record sales in the USA that year was 90,000,000. That means that one artist – the King, of all the recording artists – accounted for 11% of all the records sold in the USA in 1956.

Someone may respond that the recording industry was then in its infancy, and – as a result – Elvis had little competition. Well – despite the industry being in its infancy – Elvis faced lots of competition for the record buyer’s dollar. There were the rock ‘n’ rollers like Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino; there were the pop stars like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Frankie Laine and Perry Como; and there were the country stars like Eddy Arnold, Webb Pierce, Marty Robbins and Hank Snow. There were other musical genres with their stars.

Elvis in the 1950s truly was “The King,” because his numbers were like Babe Ruth’s during the period of his dominance in baseball. Nobody was close to Elvis in the 1950s.

Henry Hauser
January 20, 2013 at 10:43 pm

ahem – Hauser here – no self-proclaimed necessary. the king is dead. long live the king.


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