published Monday, December 3rd, 2012

The Walking David and the racism of Elvis Presley Day

Zombies — especially the ones shuffling through “The Walking Dead,’’ the hit show inspiring this Tuesday online-only column — live by eating the flesh of others.

Elvis Presley lived by dining off the works of black musicians who had come before him.

That’s why proclaiming January 8 as Elvis Presley Day — a resolution introduced by 10 U.S. congressmen (9 Democrats; 1 Republican) and awaiting vote — is an inherently racist act.

Not the hot racism of nooses and burning crosses.

But the cultural racism of memory and perspective. By crowning Elvis — but not the crowd of black musicians upon whose shoulders he stood — we reveal our white bias.

I hold no beef with Elvis. In fact, his biographers describe an enormously talented, big-hearted man who was socially and musically democratic. Consistently, he was a pioneer.

Breaking segregation laws. Dismissing white supremacy by ignoring social conventions. Respecting, and receiving respect, from hordes of black musical giants.

“When a reporter referred to him as the ‘king of rock ’n’ roll’ at the press conference following his 1969 Las Vegas opening, he rejected the title, as he always did, calling attention to the presence in the room of his friend Fats Domino, ‘one of my influences from way back’,’’ wrote Peter Guralnick in the New York Times in 2007, on the 30th anniversary of Presley’s death.

Guralnick quoted Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records: “The lack of prejudice on the part of Elvis Presley had to be one of the biggest things that ever happened.’’

Elvis himself would vote down the haughty resolution. Better than anyone, he would understand its fundamental falseness: Elvis was no king.

His royalty? A construct of white culture, which did not allow a black Elvis equivalent.

And the continual crowning of Elvis reveals this racism. This preference. The ability of white America to proclaim and crown its own.

You spot it many places: the enduring belovedness of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is a book by and for white Americans. The black character is crippled on multiple levels — literally and symbolically — thus leaving the role of hero to the white characters.

“The Help’’ — the #1 best-seller and popular film about southern maids — does the same thing.

Historically, those narratives have an excuse. It’s far easier for Atticus to take an anti-racist stand than Tom Robinson. Far easier for Skeeter than Aibileen. The white protagonist has far less to risk.

But as “The Help’’ makes excruciatingly clear, they also have far more to gain. Skeeter, bound for New York after publishing the stories of other marginalized women, mirrors Elvis in a way.

Both gain and profit from the work of their black counterparts.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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Rickaroo said...

There are indeed many ways that we have taken adantage of the blacks upon whose backs a large part of this nation was built. I think it's quite a stretch, though, to say that making an official "Elvis Presley Day" is a racist gesture. Sure, he took the black man's blues and rode it to fame, but it was much more than just a matter of copying or borrowing a musical style. A lot of great art is nothing more than a borrowing of someone else's style or idea, shaping it in a different way, and making it one's own. Elvis took a musical style and infused it with his own voice and mannerisms and heart and soul in a way that no one else could have.

I've never been a huge fan of Elvis and I'm not convinced that he even deserves the title of "King of Rock n' Roll." He didn't write any songs of his own, he peaked early musically, got sidetracked into making some horrible B movies, and then he became a hollow and pitiful caricature of himself. But when he rode the crest of that wave for a brief time, early in his career, he was inimitable and he served as inspiration for a lot of musicians who would create some great music of their own.

As for making an official "Elvis Presley Day," I think it's kind of ridiculous. We already honor his birthday, we've made a shrine out of his home-place, and he's been put on a postage stamp. I think that's more than enough for this talented but dubious "king."

December 3, 2012 at 11:20 p.m.
holly said...

Why is it that only Elvis is singled out for "stealing" black music? The snobby white psuedo-intellectuals have always hated him.

If you did some research you'd see that Elvis'influences were eclectic, from Mario Lanza to Dean Martin to country and blues singers, as well as the gospel songs he grew up with. Growing up in Mississipi/Memphis he obviously absorbed black music, same as you or I would have.

According to your reasoning only black people should perform black music, white people white music, etc. What about Obama, should he sing white in the morning and black in the evning?

As a presumably educated person, you should know that music belongs to nobody, long may it stay that way. Beethoven was influenced by Scottish/Irish music, did he also "steal"that?

Finally, what has songwriting to do with a SINGER'S greatness? Are they also diminished because they're not also light and sound technicians? Are Sinatra, Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole etc. less great as singers because they didn't write their songs? Absurd! Not always does a a songwriter interpret a song better. And anyone can write a song, what's difficult is to write a GOOD song.

April 7, 2013 at 3:26 a.m.
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