Putting on Airs | Sojourners

Putting on Airs

This past spring I went to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, again. Like millions of other Americans, I've got a thing about Elvis. To me, Elvis was not just one of the greatest vocalists of his time but also a man who helped open the cultural door between black and white, first in my native Southland and then in America at large.

It's an important, if rarely recalled, fact that in 1956 Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" was the first record ever to be number one on the pop, country, and rhythm & blues charts at the same time. He was an instinctively visionary artist who changed the world, or at least enlarged it. And, oh yeah, he was one of us--a white Southerner of working-class origins who still had to put up with people mocking his accent and manners.

Most of my fellow pilgrims to Graceland don't think much about Elvis in terms of cultural politics and racial history, not explicitly anyhow. But, by and large, they share my other impulses. They love the noise he made. And they love the story of a so-called "redneck" who was born on the wrong side of town, drove a truck when he got out of high school, rose to worldwide fame and untold wealth, and with it all remained a good old boy true to his origins and utterly without airs.

For those folk Elvis was a symbolic affirmation of their own value and the value of their lives, customs, and beliefs. His private plane, custom-made cars, and the very plush and flashy decor sneered at by urban sophisticates are, for Elvis' fans, emblems of power and respect. Those, of course, are the two things that are most lacking in the lives of most working-class Americans--Southern, white, and otherwise. The lucky ones may accumulate commodities such as skiboats and Winnebagos. But ultimately those are poor substitutes for power and respect, or for being somebody, perhaps even being your own boss. Elvis was somebody. He was "the King."

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