Race, Rock & Elvis

History in Music

Race, Rock, and ElvisRace, Rock, and Elvis at the University of Illinois

As I entered my doctoral program, I thought, like C. Vann Woodward, that I had arrived with my dissertation in my suitcase. I was all ready to write the history of Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll. I soon discovered, however, that I had a lot to learn. This realization began almost immediately. During my first semester, I was teaching an American history survey course. In preparing for a discussion on the origins of the Civil Rights movement, I previewed the first episode of the Eyes on the Prize video series. Appropriately entitled "Awakenings," the episode served as an epiphany for me. It included an account describing in detail the lynching of Emmett Till. I stared at the photographs of the young man's body in his coffin, wondering how anyone could do this to a fellow human being. The close proximity of Till's lynching to Memphis, where a young Elvis at the same time was recording for Sam Phillips' Sun company seemed surreal. How could a music that seemingly violated all of the rules of southern racial etiquette emerge at the same time and in virtually the same space as the Till lynching. It did not make sense to me. I was determined to probe deeper into the southern culture of which I was a product to find out.

For the next several years, I took classes, read, and did tons of primary source research. I began putting together my dissertation, and I was very fortunate to have several people willing to read portions and whole chapters. The advice they offered always pushed me, making me want to dig deeper. By the time I defended my dissertation, my committee thought it was ready for immediate publication. So did I. Was I in for a big surprise.

Several years previously, I had met Judith McCulloh, a wonderful lady who also is an acquisitions editor at the University of Illinois Press. In speaking to her about my recently completed dissertation, she advised me that Illinois did not publish dissertations. Taking her advice, I reexamined my work, took the next two years to do more research and writing, and transformed a dissertation into a manuscript. I finally submitted the manuscript to Ms. McCulloh, and after the process of peer-reviewing, copyediting, and acquiring photographs, the University of Illinois published Race, Rock, and Elvis, including it within their "Music in American Life" series.

Upon its release, I began looking everywhere for book reviews. Within several weeks, the Irish Times did a very positive evaluation. Of course, I thought that since this major review had come so quickly, that the New York Times, Washington Post, and similar newspapers would get around to looking at the book and possibly calling me for an interview before the rush of Pulitzer Prizes, Bancroft Awards, and nominations for poet laureate status. It did not work out quite that way. But Race, Rock, and Elvis has received many assessments, and I have made sure to delete any comments that are unfavorable in both academic journals and popular periodicals.

In 2005, the University of Illinois released a 2nd (paperback) edition of Race, Rock, and Elvis.





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