Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

All shook up: racial mix that made the king of rock ’n’ roll

You will be all Presleyed-out today, the 75th anniversary of his birth, so let me get my spoke in to commemorate the life of Elvis.

The key to the great man was cultural fusion. It is just one of these charming coincidences that the great hero of the US Marine Corps was himself representative of the cultural fusion of the Irish and the English in the US.

Presley O'Bannon, (whose father probably came from near Moneygall, an ancestral home of Barack Obama) led the corp's tiny expeditionary force to Tripoli on the Barbary Coast in 1805.

He probably acquired his given name from his maternal grandmother's maiden name. So it's possible the creator of the foundation myth of the greatest armed force for freedom in the world was a kinsman of the virtual founder of musical popular culture. How different might the musical world have been if Elvis's twin brother, Jesse Garon, had not been still-born is not a question upon which any intelligent person wastes any time. It was just so. (And if you want to know more about Elvis as a child, and the Tennessee where he grew up, you should read Peter Guralnick's splendid Last Train to Memphis).

Perhaps the key element to the Elvis persona was, like his namesake in the Marine Corps, his personal embodiment of cultural fusion: indeed, so many elements that went into the making of the US also went into Elvis himself.

In that process, the family was so thoroughly Americanised that it had lost all sight of its roots. Vernon Presley, Elvis' father, once said: “I never heard tell of any of my kinfolk coming over from anywhere. We just seem always to have been here.”

Such ignorance about racial origin is probably healthy. And certainly Elvis himself was remarkably indifferent to racial difference, at a time when the American South almost defined itself on that issue, and on the catastrophic War Between the States.

Timing in these matters is of course everything. Had he been born 10 years earlier, what he achieved would have been impossible, and 10 years later, of no significance. He was the right voice in the right place, at the right time with the right face. That was it.

Most people are aware of rock 'n' roll and the debt it owed to negro music, as it was called then, and to the Scots-Irish and English music of the Appalachians.

But there was another blend in the mix: the shtetl. It is impossible to consider rock ‘n’ roll music without the influence of its Jewish interpreters. Jewish songwriters wrote some of the defining rock songs of Elvis's career: Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, A Mess of Blues, Little Sister, His Latest Flame, Stuck on You and Dixieland Rock (which was recorded 52 years ago this month: perhaps the greatest of all Elvis tracks, and written by the Jew Aaron Schroeder, who died just before Christmas). One of the important — almost central — features of Elvis was that he was never a rebel against his country. He was always a Tennessee boy.

That particular state has, per capita, the highest number of commissioned officers in the US Army and the Marine Corps. So, when called upon to serve his nation in uniform, naturally, he did so. And partly because of this, another fusion occurred. The USA officially took its own new musical form to its heart and consecrated it as an authentic art form, needing no apology or explanation to anyone. For art is defined not by intent or intellect but by time: those cultural performers whose work popularly outlives their own flesh are true artists.

And to judge from his continuing impact upon the world, Elvis Presley was one of the great artists of the 20th century. His music is as fresh and vibrant and exciting today as when he arrived like a comet in the mid-1950s. Modern Elvis impersonators all do the late Presley, the bloated, constipated and tragic, pill-popping figure slurring his way through Simon and Garfunkel numbers that he should no more have been singing than How Much is that Doggy in the Window.

But they simply cannot imitate the young Elvis: the sensationally sexual, hip-swinging youngster with a wonderful sense of rhythm.

This was the man who drove a snow plough through the ice banks of epicene, sentimental, 1950s balladry and slow waltzes; and then astounded the musical world by later embracing those very song-forms for himself, best exemplified by his almost perfect version of the old ballad, Are You Lonesome Tonight?, so rendering it thenceforth unsingable by any other performer or any imitator.

Elvis was duped by a venal, wicked manager, the utterly bogus ‘Colonel' Tom Parker, cheapened by the tawdry rhinestone squalor of Las Vegas.

Tragically, he could also have been a fine actor, but for the malignant influence of Parker upon his film career. That he died so young certainly spared him further decades of indignity and exploitation. Elvis Presley was the first truly global embodiment of the cosmopolitan, Jewish-influenced culture whose arrival Hitler rather presciently predicted, and unsuccessfully tried to halt. And that, perhaps, is the greatest compliment of all to one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

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