Irish Times Article

Rock 'n' Roll History

Saturday, October 7, 2000

Elvis was no highway

robber across colour line


To read about rock 'n' roll as history is something of a novelty. There has long been a tendency for books on the subject to be impressionistic, nostalgic and gravely mistaken romantic blether which hurtles inexorably towards the rise of Elvis Aaron Presley. Some traditional analyses assume that "the King" came out of nowhere and invented rock 'n' roll all by himself, while others have him down as little more than a cultural thief who callously ripped off black music for his own good. Both notions are wrong but powerful enough to linger, damaging Presley's achievement in ways more grievous than tales of hamburgers and pills.

In Race, Rock and Elvis, Michael T. Bertrand sets out to take Presley and his hinterland very seriously indeed. He contends that the rock 'n' roll period, often portrayed as a simple time when young people were particularly susceptible to media manipulation, is one of the least understood and repeatedly misrepresented episodes in recent history.

It's as if rock 'n' roll was a craze - merely the ravings of teenagers prodded into action by the controlling stick of commerce. But Bertrand does not accept the traditional high-brow/low-brow approach to things. Condemning those who treat all things popular as unwelcome guests at their "high-brow" table, he revels in a discussion of the intricacies of perhaps the biggest pop phenomena of all rock 'n' roll. And rather than view the actions of its teenage consumers as just as meaningless as the product they were consuming, he emphasises the complexities of how it was received, embraced, de-coded and re-created. And this is at the very heart of the book. How did American southern teenagers react to rock 'n' roll? And what was the impact of such a wholesale acceptance of black music in a place not known for its racial harmony ?

As such, the book is neither a history of the music, nor a biography of Presley, but an investigative attempt to examine how popular culture changed racial attitudes in the American South. The emergence of rock 'n' roll was, according to Bertrand, the first time in the history of the former Confederacy that southern racism stumbled and broke down. And the reason for this quite monumental shift was that southern white youths were demanding something that, at least in its raw state, nobody wanted them to have - access to black culture, as a means of identifying themselves.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, young whites not only embraced r 'n' b and later, rock 'n' roll, but also came into personal contact with blacks in social situations. Although there was a segregationist rope erected to stop people dancing together, it was a rope which was often trampled in an enthusiastic rush to the stage. And crossing that rope, in full view of the law, was a much more radical effect than anything music has produced since. Of course, once it was discovered that rock 'n' roll was unstoppable, the music industry moved in and replaced it with something rather more wholesome. And Pat Boone was bound to be more agreeable to moms and dads than Little Richard could ever be. And that was more of less the end of it.

Of course rock 'n' roll had never been a racial crusade. It was merely a musical melding of black and white styles. Rhythm and blues meets bluegrass in a fusion which combined the moves, dress and mannerisms of post-war working-class blacks and whites.

It coincided with a period Bertrand refers to as the South's "troublesome coming of age" an era of economic prosperity which brought with it all sorts of changes - most of them unacceptable to the parents of the young rock 'n' rollers.

In 1954, the Supreme Court decision in the Brown case severely shook the white South and its reaction seemed only to confirm that all white southerners were racist to the core. Bertrand argues, however, that to look at popular culture allows one to muddle stereotypes and appreciate that something much more subtle was going on at the grass roots. His view - like that of Nat King Cole - was not to judge all southern whites by the actions of their leaders. And young people, says Bertrand, were starting, in small ways, to discover things.

"Rock 'n' roll exhibited the potential to liberate age-old stereotypes and help reconstruct the way post-second World War white southerners related to African-Americans. Not everyone who tuned into the rock 'n' roll revolution embraced or even contemplated the revised racial order. Enough did, however, to make a difference."

The most famous southern white man was Elvis Presley. And given the nature of the South, he is a riddle in more ways than one. Why, asks Bertrand, would a white working-class southerner immerse himself in a music and performing style perceived as black in origin? It's worth remembering that when Elvis Presley started acting black, it was neither popular nor profitable to do so.

Certainly there was already plenty of black music audible within ostensibly white music, but Presley took it very far indeed. When he first recorded That's Alright Mama, bass player Bill Black suggested that if it ever got played on the radio, they might be run out of town.

Predictably, this new version of rock 'n' roll in the person of Elvis Presley was roundly condemned. As the years went on and Presley became considerably less dangerous, the army, the movies and ultimately the white suit stripping him of threat, he eventually became a different kind of saviour. And it is the latter myth which has seen Elvis fondly accepted by the south - the Elvis who loved his mother, his country and Jesus. However, it's an image which ignores the actual racial and political challenge he presented when he was at his 1950s peak. Very convenient.

Of course, the contradictions in the Elvis Presleys are much to complex to deal with here, but Bertrand makes an admirable fist of it in his book, contending ultimately that Elvis was one of the good guys. He was anything but a cultural thief and certainly was not, as Public Enemy put it: "Straight up racist that sucker was. Simple and plain".

In fact, Elvis Presley was extremely popular among southern blacks. He was played on black stations before anybody realised he was white but, once discovered, it had little impact on his status. B.B. King and Rufus Thomas are among the many black entertainers who still speak lovingly of the early days in Memphis. In fact, the injustice came about not at the hands of Elvis, but in the blatant "covers policy" pursued in his wake. This was a contemptible bandwagon which saw non-rhythm and blues acts such as The Crew Cuts and Pat Boone lined up to record white versions of black music almost as soon as black version appeared - what Langston Hughes referred to as "highway robbery across the colour line".

But this was never Presley's approach. His were genuine attempts to emulate his heroes, people from his part of the world, for whom he had outspoken and once very unfashionable regard. As he put it: "A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock 'n' roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like coloured people. Let's face it, I can't sing like Fats Domino can. I know that."

This thoroughly readable and redemptive book tackles some major issues. The story of American music is, after all, as complex as the story of the country itself, and yet Bertrand covers most bases with impressive ease. His major contribution, however, is a measured assessment of how rock 'n' roll in some way, really did change the seemingly unchangeable place of its birth. For such a scholarly exercise, it's also an encouraging tale of young people beginning to realise that it was their parents, and not Elvis the Pelvis, who was the real disgrace. Although the hopes of the period may never have been entirely realised, the music was, at least for a time, both a symbol and a vehicle for post-war racial accord.

The last word goes to Little Richard, the king and queen of rock 'n' roll: "Although I was black, the fans didn't care. I used to feel good about that. Especially being from the South, where you'd see the barriers, having all these people who we thought hated us, showing us all this love."


Race, Rock and Elvis by Michael T. Bertrand is published by University of Illinois Press (






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