Elvis Presley: King or Apprentice?

Peter Guralnick (in his 08/11/07 Op-Ed in The New York Times titled “How Did Elvis Get Turned Into a Racist?”) is the latest critic to distance Elvis Presley from the blacks from whom he borrowed, claiming that Presley fused rock ‘n’ roll (black), with what is known as country western or “hillybilly” music (white). This achievement was credited by one NPR commentator with “changing American music forever.”

One problem with this description, which seems to be the consensus among white critics, is that others had accomplished this fusion before Presley. And Mr. Guralnick’s article, even though pointedly including Elvis Presley’s acknowledgement of his black mentors, still presents a musical racial divide that historically did not occur. He, like many critics, omits the black contributions to country western music, an amalgam of African and Celtic musical traditions which evolved across the American South.

Country music is considered, along with southern folk hymns and the New England hymns, to be an indigenous American music form, one that provided the basis of what is called the “American” music tradition. Case in point, the easily documented development of the banjo, a signature instrument in the country music sound: In the 1740s it was introduced to colonists by enslaved West Africans, as a two or three stringed instrument made out of a gourd, called the banjer, which was played in a melodic downstroke “picking” style. Travelers’ journals document the banjo had reached Wheeling on the Ohio River (in present day West Virginia) by 1806, twelve years ahead of the new National Road, and was heard in western Kentucky by the early 1820s, with its evolution into the five string banjo occurring by the late 1840s, when one of the earliest known white banjo players, Virginian Joel Walker Sweeney (1810-1860), was making the instrument popular while appearing in early minstrel shows.

In regard to the critics’ claims that Elvis Presley set the precedent in fusing country western and rock ‘n’ roll, the bestselling hits of Fats Domino (“Goin’ Home/Reeling and Rocking, 1952,”; “Goin’ to the River/Mardigras in New Orleans, 1953”; “Thinking of you/I Know, 1954”; “Ain’t That a Shame,1955″ ;”Blueberry Hill, 1956”) and Chuck Berry (“Maybellene/Wee Wee Hours” 1954; “Roll Over Beethoven, 1956” ; “Rock and Roll Music,1957” and “John B. Goode, 1958”) could as accurately be said to deserve the credit for that innovation. In James Brown’s I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life of Soul, Brown recounts that when he first watched Elvis Presley in performance, Presley imitated him so closely that Brown commented, “That’s me up there.”

Also around this time, the black performing artists Wynonie Harris (“Bloodshot Eyes”1951), The Orioles (“Crying in the Chapel” 1953), Ray Charles (“I’m Movin’ On,” 1959), Bobby Hebb (“Night Train to Memphis” 1960) and Solomon Burke (“Just Out of Reach” 1961) were creating some of the many other “soul” hits by black performers which also fused country western and rock n roll.

Moreover, to claim that country western music is white music is to ignore black country western artists, who have been disappeared from American musical history by chauvinistic critics. Some of these black musicians were recorded in the 1920s to 1940s, often as members of integrated stringbands, their music mixing traditional ballads and fiddle tunes with blues and ragtime.

Other black country music musicians were mainly soloists, like the legendary twelve string guitarist Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (1888-1949) whose concerts and Library of Congress recordings of folk classics such as “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight Irene,” and “Rock Island Line” in the 1930s and 1940s, which, when re-recorded by many white folk and country singers fueled an American folk music revival in the 1950s and 1960s; and DeFord Bailey (1899-1982), the master harmonica stylist who was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry, the premier country western showcase located in Nashville, Tennessee. Bailey appeared as a regular Grand Ole Opry act for fifteen years, between 1926 and 1941. Since its beginning in 1925 as the radio station WSM (after the logo of its sponsor, National Life and Accident Insurance Company: “We Shield Millions”), the Grand Ole Opry’s radio show and performance space has been home to country western music’s top performers. As the legend goes, even Grand Old Opry’s name was inspired by a DeFord Bailey performance in 1927, when the announcer, George Hay, commented, “For the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from the Grand Opera, but from now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry.” The Grand Ole Opry has made billions; DeFord Bailey died penniless. Finally, after years of debate, Bailey was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

White rock ‘n’ roll musicians–like Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones–and jazz musicians like Bob Brookmeyer, admit to their indebtedness to African American mentors. It’s the critics who somehow claim that these white musicians have somehow transcended the efforts of those who inspired them. These critics not only insist that white males be at the center of their own narrative, but also the American narratives of everyone else.

CARLA BLANK is the author of “Rediscovering America” (Three Rivers Press,
2003). She plays violin on the new CD “For All We Know” by the Ishmael Reed Quintet, available for $12.75 plus $1.00 for mailing, from Ishmael Reed P.O. Box # 3288 Berkeley, Ca. 94703.


More articles by:

Carla Blank’s most recent book is “Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel: two Pioneer Women Architects of Nineteenth Century North America,” co-authored with Tania Martin. She collaborated with Robert Wilson on “KOOL, Dancing in My Mind,” which premiered at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum in 2009. In May 2015 she directed a production of Ishmael Reed’s play, “Mother Hubbard” in Xiangtan, China, and in September 2015 she directed Yuri Kageyama’s “News From Fukushima” at New York’s LaMama Café Theater.

Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador   Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro