The legacy of America is the blending of black, white and Native American into a whole greater than its individual parts. The music of America is perhaps its greatest export.
It was built upon the foundation of slaves, poor southern whites, Native American rituals and aristocratic European immigrants. Jazz is America’s classical music and it was the first export to give the rest of the world a sense of what America is and what it could potentially represent for the rest of the world.
Yet the ultimate personification of American culture did not come until 30 years after the jazz revolution began. Simply put, America can be summed up in two words: Elvis Presley.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Presley’s death and many are reconsidering the role he played in pop culture history.
When he exploded upon the American cultural landscape in 1956, Presley was an enigma to all except the city of Memphis, and possibly New Orleans. This guy performed the most simple, yet most profound, kind of music and elicited a firestorm of response.
There were whites who said he sounded black, blacks who said he didn’t sound white but certainly not black. He was what author Stephen Talty called the personification of Mulatto America. In his book of the same name, Talty writes, “The moment when the young Elvis, out of nowhere, started singing ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ in his half-breed style is the pivot on which much of modern culture turns. Rock and roll, youth culture, and all that followed was born that day in Memphis.”
What America exported to the rest of the world as a result of this poor, white singer would change societies the world over. According to The Beatles Anthology, John Lennon said, “I’m an Elvis fan because it was Elvis who really got me out of Liverpool.”
In an April 2004 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine, U2’s lead singer, Bono, wrote that Presley had “hips that swivel from Europe to Africa, which is the whole point of America, I guess.”
Presley not only reminds us of America’s ability to influence the world, but also of our own paradoxes. He made black music more popular than any other form of music in the world, which would lead some to claim that he stole it. But all musicians “steal” from one another; it’s in our blood. Presley would merge a gospel hymn like “Amen” with Ray Charles’ classic rhythm and blues song “I Got a Woman” with no second thought. Vocally, he would be the anti-drug, yet die addicted to them. Yet it’s the cultural paradoxes that made him the influential singer he was.
Bono wrote, “In Elvis, you have the blueprint for rock and roll: The highness – the gospel highs. The mud – the Delta mud, the blues. Sexual liberation. Controversy. Changing the way people feel about the world.”
In recent years, Presley has been thought of more as an overweight Vegas circus act than the socially revolutionary figure he actually was. Most rock and hip-hop musicians have no idea how many doors were opened for them by Presley’s 1956 cultural explosion. In Presley, the divisions America likes to focus on were temporarily blurred, and a new possibility of seeing and hearing the world was opened up. Hopefully we, as a nation, can be as harmonized socially as Presley was musically and show the rest of the world what America is supposed to be about.
Erick Raven is a first-year graduate student in the School of Education from Grand Prairie.