Does America Need Him to Come Back?
Every year, something magical happens in Memphis, Tennessee, as Elvis Presley Boulevard hosts an unusual spectacle in the middle of its standard procession of convenient stores, loan offices, and Elvis Presley souvenir shops. Elvis Presley’s Graceland becomes the site for a massive candlelight vigil on the eve of his untimely death at the age of forty-two in 1977. In 2016, Black Lives Matter protesters also gathered on Elvis Presley Boulevard for the commencement of Elvis Week, later filing a discrimination law suit after being forbidden to enter Graceland1 Their demands for increased adult literacy and an end to police brutality among other social injustices devastating black communities in both Memphis and beyond were met with law enforcement while Elvis fans prepared for their beloved celebration. While no violence ensued between any of the parties present, the evening remained tense as thousands commemorated an American icon from the past while others attempted to spotlight the country’s ongoing issue of racial inequality. Today, instead of being decorated with flowers and heart-felt notes commemorating Elvis, the walls enclosing the Graceland estate might be found graffitied with fury over the growing contention that, in America, black lives have never mattered. But what is the relationship between Elvis and black lives in America? Why has his famed home become a site for protest against racial inequality in the country?
Perhaps the most prominent charge against Elvis on the subject of racial injustice in America is that he appropriated black music. While some of Elvis’ black contemporaries shared a similar view of his success (including Ray Charles), others regarded him as both a musical and social pioneer. Stevie Wonder, for example, argued that Elvis’s music was a victory for racial integration in the country because the white singer incorporated his influences from black music into his own music. According to James Brown, who believed that “soul has no color and no barrier,” Elvis opened doors for an up-and-coming Brown in the 1950s by acquainting white American audiences with the new and radical landscape of rock and roll. While Brown didn’t mention this aspect of Elvis’ early career, the white singer received major backlash from numerous conservative White Americans when he entered the music scene. Ridiculed for emulating black music and dance, Elvis was labeled a dangerous threat to racial segregation by White Supremacists who would sometimes storm to local diners and cafes, demanding that Elvis records be removed from jukeboxes immediately. Ultimately, Brown remembers Elvis as both a musical genius and a dear friend whose support was so incredible that he would close out entire movie theaters in order to showcase James Brown’s new movies. B.B. King also perceives Elvis as a musical pioneer who “had everything,” joking that he too could have been an Elvis had he been able to light up a stage as much as the wickedly-handsome and electrifying Presley. Little Richard joins the likes of Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and B.B. King by passionately asserting that there will never be another performer as great as Elvis Presley. In spite of popular support for Elvis from many of his prominent black contemporaries, his legacy continues to attract both deep admiration and fierce criticism (as recent BLM protests at Graceland demonstrate).
Alice Walker’s short story, “Nineteen Fifty-Five,” attempts to unify the likes of critics and admirers of Elvis on the question of the performer’s significance to racial injustice in the country. Told from the perspective of Black American singer Gracie “Big Mama” Mae Still, “Nineteen Fifty-Five” focuses on Gracie’s encounters with Traynor, a young, white singer who becomes a worldwide sensation in 1956 after recording one of her unsuccessful songs. 1956 is the same year that Elvis’ performance of “Hound Dog” received massive mainstream success, dominating the charts in almost every genre from R&B to country and pop. Three years beforehand, Willie “Big Mama” Mae Thorton—for whom “Hound Dog” was written—released her recording of the song but only topped the R&B charts, which was widely regarded at the time as an exclusively black genre. Gracie becomes conflicted not because she failed to turn her own song into a hit record, but because she believes that Traynor performs the song identically to her. “If I’da closed my eyes, it could have been me” she swears upon hearing Traynor perform her song for the first time.2 Something was wrong. Why was Traynor a sensation and Gracie wasn’t when their recordings of the same song were equally powerful? Years after their first encounter, Traynor finally admits to Gracie that he isn’t capable of writing songs based on his own personal experiences and, instead, relies on original songs from other artists to sustain his career. While it is unclear whether or not Traynor relies on material from black artists exclusively, he doesn’t mind asking Gracie for another song to perform, lamenting that he is often handed meaningless material from writers (mostly white) working with prominent studios. While Traynor’s failure to write an original song might be evidenced to support the claim that Elvis was a cultural appropriator of black music and not a musical pioneer—certainly not a “King of Rock and Roll”—Traynor, like Elvis, remains a powerful voice in American culture. Traynor, however, disdains his audiences who, as he laments to Gracie, mindlessly feast on his voice like a “pack of hound dogs,” never stopping to savor the powerful influences that inspire his sound.3 Decades into their acquaintance, Traynor finally gathers the confidence to attempt transforming his fans by scheduling a performance for both himself and Gracie on the Johnny Carson Show. Perhaps Traynor’s fans would finally witness the dynamic power of music as their idol introduces them to his greatest musical influence. On the show, the audience politely applauds Gracie after she performs her song—the same one that made Traynor a star—and explodes after Traynor performs the same song. Gracie tries to settle Traynor’s fury, advising him to ignore his stupid fans and treat them as a helpless cause. What Gracie doesn’t express to Traynor, however, is the magnitude of her confusion. As she listened to Traynor perform her song on stage, Gracie experienced the same chill that consumed her decades before when Traynor first performed her song. Traynor had done it again; he had performed Gracie’s song just like her. While she never resents Traynor, Gracie never stops wondering how two voices can be equally powerful and yet only one of them is actually heard. 4 Traynor and Gracie’s equal voices matched against their unequal successes is a disparity that Walker arguably crafts in order to incriminate Traynor’s fans, not the singer himself. Traynor, after all, never expresses a desire to control the American stage by himself and at times appears desperate for others to perform alongside him. Traynor’s faith in American audiences had shot up in flames. While he shared Gracie’s voice with audiences, it was ultimately silenced. It appeared as though the time had not yet arrived for popular American music to become a platform for different artists to mesmerize audiences with the power of their voices.
One day, Gracie is informed that Traynor’s stupid fans are at it again, wailing and salivating over him like rabid dogs. This time, however, their tears are sorrowful—Traynor is dead. In the wake of Traynor’s death, the future of the country appears bleak to Gracie. With Elvis projected to surge to unprecedented popularity in 2021 as a result of a multi-media marketing campaign designed to revitalize his brand—including the release of a major motion picture documenting the singer’s life—the American icon’s brand must demonstrate that it can forge meaningful conversations for a country that remains divided.5 Walker’s short story proposes that Americans aren’t obligated to either love or hate Elvis. However, it suggests that it might be a waste for America to forget him altogether. Whether one remembers Elvis as a proprietor of black music, a pioneer of racial integration, or a musical genius among other means, an encounter with Elvis in American popular memory is ultimately an encounter with vast opportunity for the country to determine where its values currently unify or divide its citizens. If the final outcome of BLM protests outside of Graceland is that protesters are met with avoidance while their cries for justice are simply scrubbed off of Graceland’s walls, then Gracie’s grim prophecy will come into formation at last—the country will prove to be a “pitiful” one, void of the meaningful communication that justice demands.6
- “Graceland Black Lives Matter Protest Prompts Lawsuit,” Associated Press in Billboard, January 19, 2017.
- Alice Walker, “Nineteen Fifty-Five,” You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down: Stories, Open Road Media, 2011, e-book.
- Walker, “Nineteen Fifty-Five.”
- Walker, “Nineteen Fifty-Five.”
- David Browne, “Can Elvis Rise Again?,” Rolling Stone, March 3, 2020.
- Walker, “Nineteen Fifty-Five.”