All Shook Up
In 1835, South Carolina judge William Harper declared that “A slave cannot be a white man.” Vernon Presley, Elvis’s father, probably would have disagreed. Convicted of check fraud in 1938, Vernon was sentenced to three years at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary.
“Parchman Farm was essentially a twenty thousand acre plantation,” writes Joel Williamson in Elvis Presley: A Southern Life ($34.95, Oxford University Press). “[It was] spread over a six by eight mile rectangle that used hundreds of convict laborers to produce a cash crop, cotton, for the benefit of the state.”
When Vernon Presley arrived at Parchman Farm, thirty per cent of the inmates were white. “Vernon lived in all-white Camp 5,” Williamson writes. “White drivers drove the men before them in the fields, just like slavery. If the task was to chop the grass away from the stalk of the cotton plant using a hoe, each man would have a row to hoe. If there were 150 men, they would work 150 rows simultaneously, forming a long line moving across the field. The driver would ride behind on his horse, carrying a bull whip used to reprimand laggards.
“There would be several shooters for every hundred men. When the men were working in a field, the shooters would draw a “gun line” around the field. Any man crossing the line without permission from the shooters automatically became a target.”
One of the inmates doing time at Parchman while Vernon was there was bluesman Bukka White. When White was released, he went to Chicago where he recorded “Parchman Farm Blues,” which described what life had been like for himself, Vernon Presley, and thousands of other men.
If you wanna do good, you better stay off Parchman Farm
We got to work in the mornin’, just at the dawn of day
Just at the settin’ of the sun, that’s when the work is done
Vernon’s father and grandmother were sharecroppers and Presley family poverty stretched back well before that. “Through the generations of nation-building, of exploration and settlement and industrialization, [Elvis’s] ancestors stayed almost invisible,” writes Daniel Wolff in How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Education That Made Them. “White against the white planks of weathered shacks, white against the constant landscape of cotton, they seemed to disappear. As if they didn’t count, left no marks. As if they were nothing.”
But the nothings were trying to become something. Before Elvis was born in 1935 (with the doctor’s fee paid by welfare), Vernon Presley and his wife Gladys had moved to Tupelo in northeast Mississippi. They were part of a massive Southern migration from country to city. The city of Tupelo built the first concrete roads in Mississippi. It was first to receive electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority (somewhat prophetic given the role that one of its native sons would play in the history of electric rock & roll).
Elvis was country, true enough—in his sixth grade class picture he’s barefoot and wearing overalls. Yet he grew up where, as Daniel Wolff writes: “the trains stopped, where people worked in factories, where he could walk to the movies. What he’d learned so far--in school and out--depended on a city mix of people and influences.”
A cotton-processing mill was built in Tupelo in the 1920s over the objections of the local landed gentry, who feared that the lure of factory work would destroy their tenant farming system. To keep the old elite happy, the mill hired only whites, keeping blacks in the fields. The majority of its workforce was female, forcing most local white males to remain tenant farmers.
But the die had been cast. The cotton mill attracted garment factories. A Carnation milk plant opened up. Across the South, the nothings wanted to become something. Union organizers became a common sight, while governors in textile states ordered out the National Guard to protect the mills. After wages were repeatedly cut in Tupelo, the United Textile Workers came to town. In mid-April 1938 (shortly before Vernon was sentenced) union organizer Jimmie Cox was kidnapped, whipped and told that if he didn’t leave Mississippi he would be killed.
Vernon Presley’s check fraud case occurred in the midst of all this. Vernon pled not guilty but his plea came too late for him to be tried during the court’s fall term. His case had to wait until spring. He was promptly convicted and sentenced to three years at Parchman Farm. The six months he spent in the county jail over the winter were not subtracted from his sentence.
When Vernon got out of Parchman Farm, he was reunited with his family in Tupelo. He was unable to find steady work and the Presleys eventually lost their house and had to move into a rental in Shake Rag, Tupelo’s black ghetto.
In November 1948, the Presleys headed for Tennessee. Wolff notes that “the move to Memphis was the next logical step in the long migration: off the farm and into the future.”
No one anticipated that the future would include Elvis becoming one of the biggest stars on the planet. Before that happened, when he was just a regional act and still living with his parents in Memphis, Elvis would often reverse the journey from country to city. In January 1955, he began a tour in the heart of the Delta in Clarksdale, Mississippi, went west across the Mississippi River to play Helena, Arkansas, then Marianna, Arkansas, and Shreveport. The tour then recrossed the river to play through northeastern Mississippi and northwestern Alabama at Booneville, Corinth, and Sheffield. It ended at the National Guard Armory in Sikeston, Missouri.
This was typical. As his career was gathering steam, Elvis performed mainly, as Williamson writes, “through the black belt South, first in places where the numbers of black people relative to white people ran highest and where the tension over integration was greatest—from east Arkansas and Texas across to north Florida and up into eastern Virginia.”
The Supreme Court decision of 1954 that ordered school integration hung heavy in the air throughout this period, as implementation and resistance loomed on the horizon. The stark black versus white nature of the situation in the Deep South caused many to see Elvis as a cultural outsider, a thief of black music. This accusation has been made continuously ever since.
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
— “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy
It’s true that in the 1950s there was a common practice of using white artists to cover the songs of black artists, deliberately watering them down because, supposedly, that’s what the white audience wanted. That isn’t what Elvis did. Compare his version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” which effortlessly gets to the raw sex at the heart of the song, to the vanilla version by Pat Boone, in which the man in the white buck shoes comes across stiff and bewildered.
Elvis grew up in a segregated world but he didn’t grow up separate from blacks. Joel Williamson describes a typical weekend for Elvis in Shake Rag: “On Saturday afternoons, he walked past the bustling black businesses. On Saturday nights, he sensed all around him the excitement—music, talking, dancing, drinking, wooing, and fighting. Then, on Sunday mornings, he witnessed the gatherings of worshippers in the church yards near his home, followed by the rich thick sound of gospel singing welling up and out of the churches and filling the air.”
“With his almost miraculous ear and passion for music,” Williamson adds,”he drank in those sights and sounds. When he was twelve and thirteen, they became a part of him.” It wasn’t surprising that after the Presleys moved to Memphis, Elvis and several of his friends were frequent visitors to the East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church, less than a mile from Elvis’s own church, where the legendary gospel songwriter Reverend Herbert Brewster (“Surely God Is Able”) delivered sermons and Queen C. Anderson and the Brewsteraires were the featured soloists.
Elvis’s experiences were hardly unique. Williamson wrote in an earlier book, Crucible of Race, that “It seems fairly clear that whites learned much from blacks in language, literature, and religion, in music and manners, and in cuisine and conjuring. It’s probably not too much to say that a significant amount of the African heritage that survived in the slave South survived outside the black world in the white.” It survived and evolved and Elvis was one of many who was there to inherit the wind.
In 1985, the keynote speaker at Memphis State University’s annual Elvis Presley memorial ceremony, held on the anniversary of his death, was Muhammad Ali. “We black people are kind of funny about music,” Ali said. “We don’t follow anything but what we call soul—Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson. But the only white boy I saw who could sing as good as any of ‘em was Elvis.”
Blues photographer Dick Waterman writes about a mid-1990s “Elvis and the Blues” seminar at the University of Mississippi where one panelist was Early Wright of Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of the first African-American radio DJs in the South. “Early went on to tell stories of how he met the young Elvis in the early 1950s at ‘colored dances’ in Clarksdale. He spoke of an Elvis who was quiet, sincere, respectful of his elders and enthralled by the music he had come to hear.”
After playing a show in Houston one night, Elvis and his band headed for the Club El Dorado across town, where blues singer Lowell Fulson was headlining. According to Peter Guralnick, Fulson called them up on stage for a couple of numbers and Fulson’s opinion was: “Elvis sounded good and the house accepted it.”
But although Elvis Presley was a product of and even to a degree an agent of change, he could not escape the rigidly structured world he came from.
Eugene Talmadge, the governor of Georgia from 1933 to 1937, opposed FDR’s New Deal and refused to implement its programs. In a gathering of poor white workers, Talmadge justified preventing the distribution of free surplus food. Because it was a federal program, he told them, blacks would be getting free food right along with the whites and then, he warned, blacks would be “dancing with your daughters.” Talmadge was elected governor for two consecutive terms. Elvis was born, two states over, in the year that Talmadge was re-elected.
As a very young child, Elvis would drive with his mother to visit his father in prison at Parchman Farm on Sundays. Their route went through the endless flat expanse of the Delta, where thousands of blacks worked as sharecroppers. Near Batesville, the Presleys would cross the Tallahatchie River, up the bend from where Emmett Till’s lifeless body would be dumped in the water tied to a cotton gin fan. Till was a Chicago teenager murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The year was 1955, the same year Elvis signed his recording contract with RCA.
Elvis went to Humes High School in Memphis, an all-white working class school. On April 9, 1953, Elvis performed as part of the school’s annual “Minstrel Show.” Such school assemblies were common throughout the South and tended to follow a standard script. Joel Williamson describes it: “A school band provided the music. More than a dozen students in blackface, seated onstage in a long row of chairs, sang and swayed. ‘End men’ on either side of the singers, also in blackface, shook tambourines, talked loudly back and forth, and made jokes, while ‘Mr. Interlocutor,’ a white-faced, elegantly suited white student seated in the middle of the group, acted as the master of ceremonies.”
It was no minstrel show three years later on the Fourth of July, when a crowd of seven thousand people at Russwood Park in Memphis went crazy for Elvis at his biggest local concert yet. But earlier that day, only two miles away at Overton Shell, over three thousand people celebrated America’s birthday by attending an anti-integration rally led by Mississippi Senator James Eastland.
As Elvis’s career began to blossom, he remained at ground zero of the struggle over segregation. “During 1955,” Williamson writes, “Elvis performed live on stage 234 times, but in only two cities outside the South….The 1955 performances were not only Southern, they were black belt Southern, areas where the proportion of blacks to whites ran high. Virtually all of Elvis’s performances in 1955 occurred in states where slavery had been a central cultural institution less than a century before, where lynching by hanging and burning and race rioting had been rampant only fifty years before….where tension over the integration of the races in the public schools was then rising to white-hot intensity.”
Further, “His performances became totally visual, and the girls responded to his every move as he sang—audibly, visibly, physically, and without inhibition.” There was a backlash in the South against Elvis, much of it centered on the way he was encouraging teenage girls to cast aside the traditional Victorian modesty of Southern white womanhood. These girls might soon be going to school with young black males and local demagogues used the same racist appeals as Eugene Talmadge. A black belt Southerner himself, Elvis must have been aware of all this.
How did he process his experience with segregation? When Elvis went to East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church, he sat in a section reserved for whites. When he along with thousands of other whites went to the Memphis funeral for two members of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, a white singing group from Choctaw County, Mississippi, blacks had to sit in the balcony. When Elvis lived in Shake Rag, certain houses were set aside for whites. Everything was defined by race, and despite the grinding poverty of the Presley family and the fact of his father’s imprisonment, it would be obvious to him that whites were in a superior position. So Elvis probably didn’t give it much thought when he introduced his black backup singers the Sweet Inspirations to a Las Vegas audience in 1975 as “the young ladies who stayed out in the sun too long.” He later compared Estelle Brown of the Inspirations to Stepin Fetchit.
The same man who made these racist comments closed his 1968 comeback TV special with a tribute to Martin Luther King, who was assassinated in Memphis just blocks from where Elvis had lived as a teenager. The song, “If I Can Dream,” was written for Elvis by the show’s vocal arranger Earl Brown, an African-American. Elvis delivered the song with intense passion.
There must be lights burning brighter somewhere
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue
If I can dream of a better land
Where all my brothers walk hand in hand
Tell my why, oh why, oh why can’t my dream come true
Chuck D of Public Enemy, who penned the lines “Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me,” told The Guardian last year: “I never personally had something against Elvis. But the American way of putting him up as the King and the great icon is disturbing. You can't ignore black history. Now they've trained people to ignore all other history--they come over with this homogenized crap. So, Elvis was just the fall guy in my lyrics for all of that.”
Elvis remains a fall guy to many, an unavoidable fate since he has been an unwitting part of the whitewashing of American history that Chuck D describes. In some ways Elvis is also a hero, someone who helped create a voice for youth and a culture to use it in. He helped to establish a space for people to define themselves on their own terms.
Elvis didn’t climb aboard that train consciously—his only plan was to make music no matter what. That he did. But he did not, as many maintain, invent rock & roll. Chuck D is certainly justly pissed off about all who are left out of the story when Elvis is given all the credit, but the truth is that no one person or even group of people invented it. Rock & roll came about as a byproduct of gigantic social and historical forces. Literally countless people were involved in the musical evolution that emerged. If you subtract Elvis or any other individual from the mix, the essential result would be, if not exactly the same, instantly recognizable.
The “homogenized crap” that passes for history in the United States is more than fundamentally inaccurate. It teaches us that we are separate from each other, that we each belong to groups which have nothing in common. But if you dig deep enough into the history of Elvis Presley or into the history of Public Enemy, you will eventually wind up in the same place—a place more black than white, more South than North. The sonic boom unleashed from there has shattered barriers and mutated throughout the world, where it both gives and receives. And despite decades of corrosive corporate influence, the music remains a voice of hope for the Vernon Presleys of this world, for the slaves in bondage and for all us slaves held in check economically, spiritually, or politically.