Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Elvis, Lester Maddox, and Peter Guralnick

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Peter Guralnick marvels at how Elvis Presley "got turned into a racist" by today's African-Americans, who (he seems to believe) fail to understand that Elvis cannot have been a racist because he liked black music.

If such logic were valid, Lee Atwater would be Rosa Parks.

As a matter of fact, the same dirty trickster who used racist code language on behalf of Ronald Reagan in 1981, and whose posse gave us the notorious Willie Horton ad in 1988, once worked in Percy Sledge's band. He even recorded an album with B.B. King. But you don't hear anybody wondering how Atwater got "turned into" a racist.

It's not even the question of Elvis and racism that interests me. Who cares, really? It's just a feeling that
what Guralnick himself calls "a view common in the African-American community" surely must count for something. To dismiss it out of hand, even to set about disputing it without seriously inquiring why people might feel that way, comes a little too close to asking, "what would these African-Americans know about racism, anyway?"

As it so happens, I know a little something about one of the acts cited as evidence of Presley's "egalitarian" tastes: the Statesmen Quartet, a Southern gospel group, whose "incomparable" lead singer, Jake Hess, Guralnick describes as a "lifelong" influence on Elvis.

Unfortunately, Guralnick could hardly have picked a better illustration of why listening to black music -- and recording covers of it -- doesn't absolve anyone of racism.

The Statesmen -- like Elvis -- performed exclusively for segregated audiences in the pre-Civil Rights era. Their signature song was a hammed-up copy of Dorothy Love Coates' version of "Get Away Jordan," played for comic effect, inevitably to thunderous applause. I don't know how many times Guralnick ever saw the Statesmen (he and I were born about a month apart), but I saw them many times as a boy in the Fifties. Like most people in the audience, I had no idea they were imitating anybody, having not yet discovered the originals.

The group featured an "Irish tenor," a baritone singer invariably introduced as a "full-blooded Indian," a bass singer called "Big Chief," and piano player Hovie Lister, who kicked piano benches and shook hair in his own face long before Jerry Lee Lewis. It was Lister who would leap from the bench to mug his way through Dorothy Love Coates' magnificent improvised coda, but whereas her performance is a stream of revelatory feeling, his was a study in mock pentecostal panic:
When my feet get cold, eyes are shut
Body been chilled by the hand of death
Tongue glued to the roof of my mouth
Hands lay folded across my breast --
You don't have to worry 'bout the way I fare
Godamighty done told me he'd be right there
Lift me on his mighty wings of love
Carry my soul to the heavens up above
They tell me Jordan is deep and wide
But I promised mother I'd see her on the other side
To hear her sing these lines -- after seeing Lister shout them -- was, at least for me, an experience of indescribable power.

As for Hess, he really did have a great voice, along with some irritating mannerisms that every second-rate gospel singer since his day seems to have adopted. But his real specialty was parodic imitation of black singers. It's probably where Presley learned to do it, just as he learned by watching Bill Shaw of the Blackwood Brothers how to elicit screams and swoons from women.

That the Statesmen could really sing (no modern white gospel group comes anywhere near their close harmony) does not negate the fact that a kind of clownish minstrelsy was a big part of their act.

One could perhaps argue that no one -- including Elvis -- should be blamed for whatever they did to entertain segregated audiences, when segregation was the law; and that it's what happened after integration that counts.

But what happened was that groups like the Statesmen sent every imaginable signal, coded and otherwise, to white audiences that as far as they were concerned, nothing had changed. They stopped parodying black material, true -- because in effect they stopped singing it altogether. Gospel music, among white artists, slowly morphed into a new genre, "Contemporary Christian," now whiter than ever.

In the mid-1960s Hess, like nearly all white Southern gospel artists of his era, became a "
country gospel" singer. As for the other Statesmen, they went on to record an album with former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox. Was that some kind of clue, do you suppose?

About the time Elvis was begging Nixon to make him a "Federal Agent-at-Large" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Drugs, they produced this little thing of beauty as well:

It's unimaginable that Guralnick, Presley's most celebrated biographer, wouldn't have known all this before citing the Statesmen and quoting Hess in his op-ed piece.

As for the King of Rock and Roll, what happened to him
is well known: just when groups like the Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers stopped singing black gospel music, he more or less stopped rocking. Eventually he wound up with nothing left to parody but himself.

Not everything Elvis did was parody. He made a few records that stand on their own against anybody's. And it's true that his success broke down barriers. But once the door was open, and the real thing was free to come through, there was no need to be standing in the way. Even he seemed to know that much.


Pete Shanks said...

I've enjoyed your writing for years on CounterPunch and I'm glad to find the blog. As for you and Guralnick -- you're both right. Everyone's always right about Elvis, he was everything everyone says he was, good and bad. He tapped into something he certainly did not understand, and the contradictions killed him. I wrote a longish piece about this which is posted at http://www.kusp.org/patabeat/articles/elvis_09_22_04.html.

Given where and when and how Elvis was raised it's virtually impossible to imagine he was not a racist on some level; but he was also willing to listen and respond without letting that get between his ears and his brain, and that was (and is) no small thing. I wouldn't go to Elvis for politics; but then I wouldn't go to Dylan either, beyond the warm humanity of (say) "Only a Pawn in Their Game" and the introspective desperation of "Hard Rain" -- in different ways Dylan and Elvis operate at a another level than the mundane, somewhere closer to the soul. I love them both.

Also: Atwater was a bit of a low blow -- what did he create, musically? -- but the reality check on the Statesmen is fair enough. One final comment: The only person whose recordings I think Elvis was too inhibited to take on was Ray Charles: he slew Sinatra, transcended Crudup and a host of others, even took Bill Monroe apart (heresy!), but when it came to Ray he imitated. I'm not quite sure what that says, except that Elvis had ears.

mitchako said...

I read the New York Times piece. You are attacking him for something of which he is not guilty. Guralnick is quite clear that the belief that Elvis was a racist does not count for "nothing" in the black community. Elvis benefited from white racism -- that is why he was hailed as "The King" -- so why would he not be a racist himself? When I called Peter last Saturday to congratulate him on the piece, he repeated this point to me, as if to underscore its centrality to his argument.
Furthermore, it is a case of guilt by association to assume that because one of Elvis's key influences -- the Statesmen Quartet -- backed Lester Maddox later in their career, Elvis would have done the same, or that Guralnick is OK with ax handles if Elvis' historical legacy is at stake.
Elvis may or may not at some point have said or done something that could be construed as racist. I don't know, and neither do you. If anyone would know, it would be Peter, as the author of two exhaustive biographies. The purpose of the New York Times piece was to honor Elvis' role in breaking down racial barriers in American society. There is really nothing to be gained in terms of social progress by attacking Guralnick as a way of flaunting one's "ghetto pass."
p.s. God bless Jimmy "T-99" Nelson.

Anonymous said...

Just ran across this old blog whilst re-reading Gurlanick's two-volume biography of Elvis. And just before I clicked on your message, I happened to click on a link (to a defense of Elvis) which shows some terrific photos. Take a look, one photo -- Elvis being characterisitcally "mobbed" by fans near the Hudson Theater -- shows him surrounded by black and white fans, femal and male. Not sure if that would count as "segregated", as you mention in your blog (the point being, whilst Elvis ran into such instances -- where local authorities succeeded in segregating audiences --he also managed to break through those barriers).