Culture Wars and Civil Rights: How Another King Left the South and the Nation Feeling All Shook Up: Part 2

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Sam Phillips, the man who discovered a truck driver from Memphis, Tennessee named Elvis Presley, began the independent Sun Records in 1950. Phillips allowed black and white amateur musicians to perform. One of the notable African American musicians included B.B. King, the electric Blues guitarist who recently passed away at the age of 89.

Presley first auditioned for Phillips in 1954. But it was not until he sang a song, That’s Alright, Mama, when Phillips became impressed enough to consider this truck driver as one with musical potential. The song itself was written by a black musician named Arthur “Big Boy” Curdup. However when Elvis’ rendition of it was heard on the radio, listeners could not tell if the singer was black or white.

Presley himself grew up in a poor family in Mississippi. The neighborhood his family was living in was  largely African American. Elvis’ first instance of an interest in music came at the age of 18, in 1953, after a successful singing performance in a talent show. He then joined a gospel singing group, where many of these white gospel groups that performed reflected the influence of black spiritual music. Presley listened to regional radio stations that played what was then called rhythm and blues music. B.B. King, mentioned earlier in this post, knew Presley at this time, since they both frequented the venues in Memphis where blues music was played. Elvis would always credit the long tradition of blues in the African American music community had on him.

Rock and Roll music itself is a blend of several genres. It is most directly made up of blues, a musical genre first sung by African slaves, and later developed by Black American musicians as rhythm and blues. Another piece of rock and roll is Gospel, another African American genre that came out of the religious experience of life in the United States.

The white contributed genres to Rock and Roll include Country and Western, and Folk. Country and Western originated in the southern United States. Folk is considered to have been originated in Europe, as well as the United States. Elvis himself was labeled in the Rockabilly category, which was a blend of country music and rhythm and blues.

However it was the rhythm and blues piece of Elvis’ style that created a backlash against him by older generations of southern whites. As Michael Bertrand put it in his book, Race, Rock and Elvis, “much of the southern opposition to rock and roll that would emerge during the mid-1950’s targeted the music as a threat to white southern civilization. Citizens’ Council (a white supremacist organization) spokesman Asa Carter accused the NAACP of infiltrating southern white teenagers with rock and roll music.” A pastor for one congregation in Memphis, after learning that Elvis’ singing style was learned in a white church that drew heavily from it’s black counterpart responded, “the inference that the white Assembly of God congregations borrowed heavily from the negro sects is not only a slur, but it is too stupid for words.”

However this did not stop large numbers of teenage fans from attending his concerts held in southern cities. During one of these shows in Lubblock, Texas, a teenage gang firebombed Elvis’ car. As a result, at the two concerts he performed at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair Dairy Show in 1956, one hundred National Guard troops were on hand to prevent crowd trouble.

Two songs that Elvis sang later during the 1960’s demonstrate how he and his generation of white southerners were starting to change the face of the traditionally segregated South. One of them, entitled, If I Can Dream, included the following lyrics, If I can dream of a better land, where all my brothers and sisters walk hand in hand, tell me why, oh why, oh why, can’t my dream come true. The other song, In the Ghetto, included in a video at the end of this post, is about empathy for the largely black inner-city poor.

As Michael Bertrand, an author cited earlier put it, “struggling with transition, the postwar South represented a place in time where novel possibilities for cultural exchange were unfolding. Transplanted to urban surroundings in larger numbers than ever before, a generation of young southerners found itself disconnected from a rural past and its traditions. Set apart from their parents and elders by the experience of a modern and urban existence, they sought new role models and entertainment vehicles”

Beyond Elvis Presley and his southern agents of change, popular music nationwide created its own change. Widespread acceptance of integration occurred when black and white teenagers started dancing together on the TV show, American Bandstand. Civil Rights leaders cited the role of music in their struggle for equality. According to Julian Bond, “the history of the music is also the history of cultures joining together.” In a 2004 article in Rolling Stone magazine, Bono, the singer for the band U2, described a meeting he had with Civil Rights leaders Coretta Scott King and John Lewis about Elvis’s impact on the nation. As he wrote, “I think the hill they climbed would have been much steeper were it not for the racial inroads black music was making on white pop culture. Elvis was already doing what the civil rights movement was demanding, breaking down barriers.”

The videos below include the uproar and influence Elvis had on white southerners and African American musicians, as well his song In the Ghetto, followed by another rendition by a Black rap musician.

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