Term Paper: Elvis Presley

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Elvis and Black Music

The Influence of Black Music and Culture on Elvis Presley

Ongoing celebration of the music and (still ever-expanding) musical legacy of larger-than-life American rock' n roll icon Elvis Presley (January 8, 1935-August 16, 1977) even a full three decades and counting after the pop idol's death on August 16, 1977, clearly underscores the quality and timeless appeal of Presley's unique and vastly appealing artistry. However Elvis's distinctive sound, although most often regarded as original to Elvis himself, especially by causal listeners, actually sprang from American black musical traditions. That musical debt of Elvis's though remains even now among the more lightly discussed of myriad aspects of the singer's otherwise exhaustively scrutinized art. Still, the truth is that significant musical blending, throughout Elvis Presley's formative years within the American South; and based also on many of Elvis's earliest, closest musical influences in terms of rhythm; style; tone; cadence, etc., root Elvis's distinct sound unmistakably within the black American blues and gospel traditions combined.

From that point on, at least during Presley's lifetime itself, the singer's popularity, although it never actually abated in any substantial way, did occasionally wax and wane with the introduction and rising popularity of other, newer rock 'n roll artists, with the Beatles from Liverpool becoming, especially throughout the mid-to-late 1960's, Elvis's strongest rivals for top rock 'n roll star status. were challenged but even today, long after Presley's own premature death at age 42 his cutting-edge music and the man himself, has long been a favorite national pastime of millions upon millions of devoted "Presley-ites." Elvis Presley is in fact a long-enduring cultural icon: perhaps even more so in death (and thirty years afterward and still counting, moreover) than he ever was in life.

However this musical celebration and cult following Elvis had in life and continues even long after his death to maintain, was in fact heavily influenced by African-American musical traditions not at all Elvis's own, except perhaps in the strictly geographical sense of his also, like the black musical traditions of gospel and blues, from which he took so much, also springing from the American deep South.

However many black musical; cultural, and other historians claim that Elvis's theft of their musical tradition is the epitome of the racism inherent within that era. The whole Elvis phenomenon in rock'n roll music yesterday and today only serves to further underscore, they contend, the foul way so many black writers and performers, such as Little Richard, were treated by the music industry in Elvis's own heyday. The enduring image of Elvis is a constant reflection of Society's then-refusal to accept anything other than the non-threatening and subservient Negro. The legacy of Elvis as King of Rock and Roll has to be re-examined, those critics suggest, especially in the wake of better and more accurate scrutiny nowadays of the true origins of rock 'roll. These stem from deep African-American musical traditions in blues and gospel music. Elvis himself admitted that his music is heavily influenced by the gospel of his childhood.

In order to examine the genuine roots of Elvis's music and its close connection to African-American musical traditions, several areas must be explored. First will be a closer look at the black musical tradition of Elvis's own period. Second will be an examination of musical blending of these various strains and influences that occurred within Elvis's early career and lifetime. Third will be analysis of Elvis's childhood and the influence of black musical traditions upon his later music. Finally, this essay will offer analysis of his actual musical contributions and legacy: to black Southern culture; the growing civil rights movement of his day; and mainstream American culture in general, then and now.

Elvis's music has strong roots within African-American musical traditions that were prevalent in the South during Elvis's own childhood and youth in the mid-1930's through the late 1940's and beyond. In fact, significant musical blending throughout his musical career, combined with various cultural, musical, and other strong influences from his own upbringing caused Elvis's music to be rooted firmly within the traditions of traditional Southern American black gospel and blues. Black American gospel and blues strains and blends are in fact so strongly inflected within Elvis's own enormously popular musical renditions that they are practically inseparable from them.

Specifically, the long slavery-inspired African-American musical traditions of gospel and blues from which Elvis borrowed heavily, were ones that both Elvis himself growing up in the South and his musical mentors and patrons were extremely familiar. Even today, in fact, Elvis's music enjoys especially strong and widespread appeal within the African-American community, due no doubt to Elvis's music itself having sprung undeniably from within various (related) African-American musical blends, but most strongly black American gospel and blues.

In terms of an overall landscape of black musical tradition around and at the time of Elvis's own climb and rise to fame in the 1940's and 1950's, issues of equal rights for blacks, especially in deep Southern like Mississippi where the singer was born, raised, and experienced his core musical and other life influences, were still distinctly at the outer fringes of public discourse with no real solutions in sight, or even active movements, as would later be the case in the 1960's with (for example) the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's equal rights demonstrations and sit-in's in the deep South.

During Elvis's own youth and early adulthood, though, racial segregation was still alive and well in all social mediums including one of key public importance especially in the South: church attendance; thereby explaining, perhaps better than anything else, why gospel music was not popular within white culture, although it indeed flourished, at the same time, within African-American church-going communities, which were (and are) heavily represented in the American South in particular. The segregation of the period was, obviously then, one of the primary reasons for musical separation among whites and black is of the time: as African-Americans formed their own communities that were autonomous from traditional white communities, musically and otherwise.

Also at the time, due to lingering racial prejudices left over from the slave days, African-American communities were still more or less, with very few exceptions, relegated to a deeply inferior status in all aspects of everyday life, especially vis-a-vis whites and the relatively privileged, non-stigmatized status even poor Southern whites enjoyed. Such a caste system within the south was in fact deeply ingrained into the fabric of socially acceptable segregation.

The southern beginnings of increasingly widespread rock 'n roll popularity throughout the 1940s and 1950s were later paralleled by the birth of the civil rights movement; that is, both began in the American South but then spread rapidly beyond it and throughout the United States. Moreover, it might even be argued that Rock and Roll, especially in relationship to Elvis helped the movement persist strongly and influenced better relationships between white and black social integration.

On the issue of race, moreover, Elvis rode the tide of the civil rights movement. By blending black and white music, he helped legitimate black culture during a time when African-Americans were breaking into mainstream music and entertainment culture, sports, and more broadly U.S. society as a result of the civil rights movement. Rock 'n roll became in those days a legitimate white (thanks mainly to Elvis, and, although later, other white rock 'n rollers who built on/imitated his sound) means to provide grassroots support for the civil rights movement. Thus the blending of musical traditions was not only inadvertent but even encouraged by the "establishment" of the time as a way of introducing black music into mainstream (i.e., white) America at a time when musical segregation (like all other kinds) was otherwise still very much alive and well.

Even though as early as the 1920s much of the entertainment music played by white American musicians was clearly influenced by black music, black and white music venues were still mostly segregated up to and including the earliest rock 'n roll years; that is, black musicians performed for black audiences while whites played their music for white audiences

Throughout the 1930s, though, the mere musical influence of black musicians and their art themselves, strong as it was, in the absence of the civil rights movement was not enough in and of itself to induce whites to incorporate black musical compositions and/or strains overtly into their standard entertainment repertoires [the American musical legacy of those times, especially as compared to that of the next few decades combined, clearly reflects, qualitatively speaking, and in more general terms of rhythmic; tonal, and other varieties, that deficiency.]

Popular Black music itself in America, from the 1920's on (although widely and popularly played and heard by other than blacks only in the latter decades of the 20th century and beyond) was based on gospel and blues sounds, alone and/or combined. Blues music has its traditional roots within African-American musical tradition as evidenced by the long string of musically talented artists within that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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