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Southern Cultures 13.3 (2007) 62-86

Elvis Presley and the Politics of Popular Memory
Michael T. Bertrand
Figure 1
Elvis Presley, backstage at the WDIA Goodwill Revue, December 1956. Photograph © Ernest C. Withers, courtesy of Panopticon Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts.
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A Lonely Life Ends on Elvis Presley Boulevard," blared the headline of a late-summer special edition of the Memphis Press-Scimitar. "The King is Dead." Much like his explosive ascent nearly a generation earlier, Elvis Presley's untimely demise on August 16, 1977, left many "all shook up." Grieving fans by the thousands trekked to Memphis for the wake and funeral; millions more paid their respects by besieging radio stations and record stores, listening to songs and looking for Presley products. Commenting on the mass anguish, one veteran columnist recalled that he had witnessed many instances of public mourning since the assassination of President John Kennedy, "but nothing has equaled the present national grief." The mainstream media, unprepared for the passionate and ubiquitous response that Presley's passing engendered, resorted to repeating by rote the distinctive American tale of an anonymous truck driver whose unrestrained performance style and meteoric rise to fame flustered the less than frenzied fifties. A stock script asserted that Presley symbolized the twentieth-century version of the heroic pioneer blazing trails into an unknown frontier, an unlikely rebel who set the stage for a countercultural insurgency that later would shake the sixties. As one editorial aptly extolled, "Elvis really started something."1

For many African Americans, however, Elvis was less about innovation and more about continuation, namely the perpetual exploitation and misappropriation of black labor and artistry. As the Chicago Defender noted, "When Elvis Presley breathed his last breath and the press hailed him as the 'King of Rock,' Ol' Man River cried out, 'Naw he ain't! My friend Chuck Berry is the King of Rock. Presley was merely a Prince who profited from the royal talent of a sovereign ruler vested with tremendous creativity. Had Berry been white, he could have rightly taken [Presley's] throne and worn his crown well.'"2

The issue of race certainly has cast a large shadow on the contributions of one of the most successful recording artists in the history of the music industry; Presley's legacy undoubtedly is a contested one. But then again, the man himself often seemed downright conflicted as to who or what he was. Dubbed the "Hillbilly Cat," the "King of Western Bop," the "Bopping Hillbilly," and a "white nigger" by contemporaries, the culturally schizophrenic Presley routinely erased artistic and societal borders, defying easy categorization. Was he a genuine rhythm and blues enthusiast appreciative of black talent and equality? Or was he a "racist redneck" who profited at the expense of the authentic African American performers he in fact despised? The answers depend on who is responding, and the responses readily recall the insight of two critics writing in 1958, who surely did not anticipate the longevity of their counsel: "As a subject for polemic, Elvis Presley has few peers."3

As a subject for historians, Elvis remains intriguing, at least in part because he negotiated the racial boundaries of his era. While his excursions without question [End Page 63] were unsystematic, imperfect, and "apolitical," they nevertheless threatened the racial status quo. By implicitly advocating that working-class African Americans and working-class whites might have had more in common than not, Presley's crossing of the color line undermined the myths and stereotypes that sustained Jim Crow segregation. As with other controversial episodes in the southern past, however, differing perceptions based on divergent racial and class realities have predisposed how people "remember" the singer's societal transgressions.

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Figure 2
"The King is Dead." The Memphis Press-Scimitar ran a late-summer special edition when Elvis Presley died. Courtesy of the archives of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, housed in the Special/Mississippi Valley Collections, University of Memphis...