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Race, Rock, and Elvis

Michael T. Bertrand

(University of Illinois Press)

Working Class Hero

“Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit 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.

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