Why Unintentional Racism is Worse Than Appropriation — and Why Elvis Still Matters
It is a remarkable fact that it has been more than 60 years since the heyday of Elvis Presley — arguably the biggest individual celebrity ever — and his legacy with regards to race in America is still largely unresolved. Indeed, certain views of Elvis persist still today, even when seeming almost entirely at odds with one another.
On the one hand, Elvis is the bigger-than-life legend that launched rock ’n’ roll, and perhaps even reflects the very best of America. On the other, he can be seen as the man whose legacy reflects the worst of the nation’s cultural appropriation and institutionalized racism — and who maybe was a bit racist himself?
Not coincidentally, with regards to race in 2020, America finds itself in much the same predicament. Some see claims of ongoing cultural appropriation and institutionalized racism as vastly overblown — if not entirely baseless — and only serving to fuel a politics of victimization. Others, however, look at the same country and see these problems as deeply baked into American society and still strongly impacting all of our lives, daily, today.
Of course, Elvis’s story directly touches on crucial aspects of the nation’s relationship with music and race (… and sex, and rebellion, and so on), making him a crucial piece of American history. And as such, finding some greater resolution to the Elvis legacy could go a long way toward helping a nation better address its current racial impasse. As George Orwell once wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” And when it comes to Elvis, America, and race, we clearly are still very much struggling.
The fatal problem, I would suggest, is this: our long running views of Elvis and his rock ’n’ roll legacy have tended to focus on how Elvis reflects America — whether at its best or possibly its worst. Yet, the truth of the matter is that the dynamics of America’s history of race and the roots of rock ’n’ roll are far bigger than even the story of Elvis Presley. That is, the solution is to ask a very different question altogether: How did America produce Elvis in the first place?
At a most basic level, Elvis’s life — both personally and professionally — was profoundly molded by race at nearly every step of the way. Yet his story is not so much about intentional or even conscious efforts to suppress or undermine minority interests. As an individual, Elvis relied on immense talent, guts, and vision, and he had extremely positive relationships with members of the African American community throughout his life. Still, the Elvis story is rife with exploitation, regardless. Elvis can, and should, be seen as a national treasure. But that is only half the story.
With this reassessment, any fan of Elvis Presley will hopefully be better able to see how race shaped him, as well as the substantial ways that race impacts Americans today. Those that have maybe been less enthralled with the Elvis legend will hopefully come to more fully appreciate his gifts, while also better understanding the nature of the nation’s current racial ills.
To get there will first require the unraveling of four things in particular. First, the oft-muddled Elvis legend; secondly, the roots of rock music; and finally, understanding more precisely the how and then the why rock music broke out when it did. After all, it is only with more clarity and more common ground can there be a possibility for positive change. And then, who knows, at long last maybe more Americans will be able to come together and sing “Kumbaya”… er, maybe “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”
Almost from the beginning, the story of Elvis has been clouded in immense contradictions, hype, and myth. This is not entirely shocking, of course, given that Presley first rose to massive stardom as a white guy in the mid-’50s, Jim Crow South performing in what was, at its core, a Black medium.
Presley then became such a massive star that his legend dwarfed his rock contemporaries, both white and Black, as well as earlier performers who had laid the groundwork for his success. Presley was even declared the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll” by the media.
So, how exactly has the Elvis legend been distorted?
To start with, and to reiterate, Presley was a sensational performer, and was recognized as such by most all of his contemporaries, white and Black. Also, Elvis readily acknowledged his indebtedness to Black culture and to Black musicians in interviews dating to the very beginning of his career, and, again, he had strong personal relationships with any number of prominent African Americans throughout his life, from B.B. King to Fats Domino to Muhammad Ali. Nor did he ever claim to be the “king” of anything. There was also a long-running rumor that Elvis had once made a certain racist comment said to evidence him as a closet racist, though that has been clearly debunked. (Cosby, 155–56)
It’s also true that Presley made relatively few public statements in support of the civil rights movement (more on that shortly) — though he had his moments. To give just two examples, he surprised many when he performed at a Black charity event in Memphis in 1957 and in 1968 — shortly after Martin Luther King’s assassination — he made an expression of support for King and his cause on national TV. Surprisingly, and sadly, in retrospect, at that particular moment in America that was still a fairly bold move. (Cosby 155–56, 162)
But the combined forces of talent, race, myth, and the phenomenon of rock ’n’ roll all combined to make Elvis’s story one of the most epic of modern times. However, this legend would also lead — to the bewilderment and consternation of many — to Elvis being elevated to being more than a mere “king.” Even after his early, drug-related death in 1977, a certain cult-like following of mostly white people remained so enthralled with the Elvis legend that, for a time, it could accurately be described as no less than a “religion in embryo.” (Doss, 72–73) Indeed, country star Dolly Parton noted that in rural Tennessee, where she is from, for example, Presley was “like a religious figure, like Jesus.” (Cosby, 165) Throughout the ’80s, a long-running tabloid staple were reports of alleged posthumous sightings of a somehow-still-alive Elvis as he roamed the Earth whether in various malls or random Burger Kings.
Sooo … there are some pretty strong feelings around this Elvis Presley character.
The next step in unraveling all of the above is to more fully understand the relationship between Elvis, race, and the roots of rock ’n’ roll that he came to embrace — with a bit of a refresher/crash course in rock history.
To begin with, the blues and Black gospel music were derived from slave-era music. The blues originated shortly after the abolition of slavery in the 1890s, and in the most isolated and virulently racist of regions, the Mississippi Delta. Early blues were first introduced to the broader world by the African American composer W. C. Handy in Memphis in the 1910s. Black gospel music was then the sacred music simultaneously coming out of the same circumstances, and mainly known only in the Black church community.
In short, these genres were the musical culminations of the Black experience in America. This was the sound of people navigating and transcending the nearly three centuries of enslavement and another century of official white supremacy in the South.
The Delta blues and Black gospel continued to evolve throughout the rest of the first half of the twentieth century, though outside of the awareness of white mainstream culture. The Delta was, in fact, where many of the most crucial building blocks of rock ’n’ roll were laid, including the music of Son House, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters.
Yet, it would only be when certain white people in positions of power stepped in — gatekeepers if you will — that this music could enter the cultural (i.e., white) mainstream. Famed producer and talent scout John Hammond, for example, brought both Delta blues and Black gospel to an important showcase at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1938 with a program that included a recording of the recently-deceased Johnson and the “Godmother of Rock,” the sanctified gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
In the ’30s and ’40s, father and son musicologists John and Alan Lomax “discovered” crucial southern Black folk music and blues, including two more pioneering giants — Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) and Waters.
Then, in the ’40s and early ’50s, the blues, jazz, and gospel genres evolved and fused with one another to form the initial proto-rock genres of jump blues and R&B, as well as early rock ’n’ roll. By the late ’40s, Billboard magazine was noting the “umpteenth” variation of songs by Black artists marked by a strong beat and with plays on the word “rock” in their titles, like “Good Rocking Tonight,” “All She Wants to Do Is Rock,” “Rock Awhile,” etc. — though as yet no one was actually calling it rock ’n’ roll. (Altschuler, 23)
Simultaneously, the sounds of traditional rural, southern white music was similarly evolving, incorporating blues and jazz influences into rock’s other building-blocks: honky-tonk (e.g. Hank Williams Sr.), western swing (e.g. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys), and bluegrass (e.g. Flatt & Scruggs).
Growing up poor in the Delta in the ’40s — alongside poor African Americans in Tupelo, Mississippi — Elvis was exposed to all of this.
These various musical genres and cultural threads all continued to flow into one another. However, the music business of the ’50s was as segregated as the country — legally in the South and often de facto in the North. The dominant music sales chart was Billboard magazine’s “Pop” chart, which tallied the country’s biggest selling mainstream artists. In practical terms, the Pop chart was for those white artists who were best able to not only entertain, but also most closely connect with current mainstream trends and other commonalities shared by the masses.
The “big five” major record labels of the time, along with corporate-controlled radio stations, ensured that the pop chart was filled with a steady stream of relatively safe, commercial-friendly acts. This system was maintained with a shrewd efficiency and fairly cutthroat business practices.
The lesser sales charts were the Country chart (reflecting a white but more rural audience) and the “Race” chart (later renamed the R&B chart, which essentially represented sales by African American artists to the African American community).
Rock ’n’ roll was on the precipice of breaking wide-open.
How and Why Rock Broke
Setting the stage for rock ’n’ roll, 1950s America was a time and place marked by certain freedoms and material affluence for many — but also notoriously conformist, materialistic, complacent, and loaded with anxiety. In sum, for many, life in a corporatized “rat race” and living under the threat of nuclear warfare with the then-USSR was all becoming too much. These conditions had also led to safe, corporatized, and boring popular music. Top hits of the pre-rock era famously included the unspeakably saccharine “How Much is That Little Doggie in the Window” and even “The Woody Woodpecker Song.” In sum, the American mainstream had a lot of angst — but no musical outlet for it.
Enter the next crucial white gatekeepers of rock: legendary Memphians deejay Dewey Phillips and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (not related, but best friends). Both helped open more gates for legendary Black Delta artists in the late ’40s and early ’50s, such as Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and Ike Turner. In 1951, Sam produced the consensus first rock record, “Rocket 88” by what was essentially Turner’s band. Dewey helped bring Black music over the airwaves to Memphis’ young and white masses, including a teenage Elvis.
Getting back to Elvis. He was born in 1935 and grew up before rock and roll even existed, while envisioning himself becoming a star on the top of the pop charts. When 19-year-old Elvis first showed up at Sun Studio in 1954, he was singing pop standards. His career role models included country stars like Hank Snow, but even more strongly mainstream white pop superstars like Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra — not only music icons, but crossover film stars as well.
This pop music star/Hollywood track was the absolute apex of showbiz success in a pre-Rock Star America — and it was Presley’s vision for himself. Even when the rock craze took off, Elvis (and like most people at the time) assumed that the genre would be a passing fad (like most every other pop trend ever). Said Elvis: “When [rock ’n’ roll is] gone, I’ll switch to something else. I like to sing ballads the way Eddie Fisher does and the way Perry Como does” (Guralnick, 289).
But while still a teenager, Presley was profoundly impacted by the groundbreaking rebel styles and attitudes of young, white, film superstars like Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Before rock ’n’ roll had even broken out, Brando and Dean were brazenly confronting social norms and white authority figures on the silver screen. The two stars were the role models for America’s youth in defining a new, edgy, and defiant cool. The two actors’ startling onscreen acts of rebellion against white authority figures — including parents, merchants, and even the police — were, however, met with widespread mainstream acceptance, and even great critical acclaim and awards.
Together, Brando and Dean embodied and reflected precisely where the white mainstream was, and where it was headed. That is, it was largely already accepting that white youth could challenge the white establishment in powerful new ways.
Presley was emboldened, readily absorbing the lessons and styles of Brando and Dean; he even grew his sideburns like Brando in The Wild Ones and memorized all of Dean’s film lines. And crucially, Elvis understood that the new cool rebel attitude did not include smiling — thus he developed his trademark sneer, something that became ingrained both in his general attitude and performing style.
At the same time, of course, virtually no Black people had significant roles in television or on the big screen. With only three networks controlling the airwaves, none wanted to deviate from the highly profitable and safe status quo. The number of television roles that went to Black people in the 1950s was, in fact, somewhere south of one percent (Greco Larson, 22–23). The 1951 television adaptation of the Amos ’n’ Andy radio show — a show directly derived from black-face minstrelsy — was considered by some as something of a civil right success because it actually cast Black leads, making it a better-than-nothing sort of advancement.
During the same era, of course, President Eisenhower would federalize National Guardsmen to physically integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957, while many southern states otherwise ignored the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education integration decision.
In sum, for Black people of the ’50s, it was beyond the pale to think that they would be allowed to take any significant, heroic, or confrontational roles in mainstream entertainment that threatened the white establishment — then or anytime in the near future.
Into the convergence of all of the above came Elvis.
The story of Presley’s debut recording helps illustrate how the race line in popular music was finally brought down by rock ’n’ roll — and what that meant to all involved.
From an early age, Elvis was enormously influenced by African American blues, including the Delta bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. For Elvis’s debut single for Sun in 1954 he covered Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” (as “That’s All Right”). That record was produced by Sam Phillips, immediately put on Memphis radio by Dewey Phillips, and then quickly became a regional smash.
Crudup had been born in 1905 in rural Forest, Mississippi. As a bluesman, he had built an audience with fellow southern African Americans, often living in deep poverty under Jim Crow. Crudup wrote “That’s All Right Mama” in 1946 as a Delta blues song with some Chicago Blues influence (where he recorded the song). It was upbeat, proto-rock ’n’ roll, or arguably even rock ’n’ roll. (Side note: It is extremely hard to determine a definitive “first” rock ’n’ roll record, which is another story.)
In Crudup’s version, despite a girl wronging him, he keeps his dignity and he will be just fine. He will coolly move on down the road with his life, presumably to play at the next juke joint.
On Presley’s cover version, he stumbled onto a new singing style while fooling around late at night at his first recording session at Sun Studio. He drew inspiration from Crudup, along with a “hillbilly” feel and a faster tempo — and created something original on the spot. It was even catchy as pop music with Elvis memorably humming the outro.
In the end, this was a white guy with serious talent singing Black music while pulling from the more mainstream-friendly genres of pop and country. The kids in Memphis — by all indications both Black and white — went crazy for it.
Make no mistake, what Presley did was earth shaking: he maximized the best aspects of key musical genres into a singular sound. While Elvis did not invent rock ’n’ roll, you could say — as I did in my book — that “he was the first to knock it out of the park” (Cosby, 150). Presley was great. However, it was also no coincidence whatsoever that it would be a white guy who had the privilege to first “knock it out of the park.”
So how exactly did Elvis do it — how did a notably shy, poor kid from the Delta transform into a superstar almost overnight?
Writer James Baldwin once said that being white is not a color, “it’s an attitude” (Baldwin and Esquire Editors). In young Elvis’ case, he already understood that he did not necessarily have any limits in the entertainment world. His debut reflects that. Presley sang with all of the confidence, exuberance, and swagger in the world. As a white man, Presley could metaphorically shout from the rooftops and be celebrated, while Crudup would have been arrested (Cosby, 150). “The King,” indeed.
Crudup had no conception of, nor ambitions for, worldwide fame, vast wealth, or becoming a Hollywood icon. There was no Delta blues version of Frank Sinatra in mainstream pop, and there was certainly no Black version of bad boy rebels Brando and Dean, who could smash social boundaries and shock mainstream white America on the big screen. In fact, when Presley’s career was first blowing up, Crudup had moved back to Florida to work as an itinerant farmer.
It would turn out that Crudup had borrowed parts of older blues songs for his composition — a common tradition in folk and blues music. For copyright purposes, however, this nullified Crudup’s claim to the songwriting portion of the royalties of Elvis’ cover version, leaving Presley to reap all of the rewards himself (Presley did credit Crudup on the record, at least). For that matter, Crudup was never properly compensated for any of his music and, throughout his life, worked as a laborer and bus driver to support his family (Altschuler, 50).
In hindsight, it’s clear that 1950s America was ready — really, desperate for — rebellion. But only a certain kind of rebellion. The closest that a Black star like rock giant Chuck Berry could get to directly challenging America on race was to coyly sing about the heroic exploits of a “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1956). Even before releasing “Johnny B. Goode” (1958) — quite possibly the most important rock song ever — Berry had to change his original lyric from “Oh my what that little colored boy could play” to a “little country boy.”
Around the same time as Elvis’ debut, the white deejay Alan Freed — who worked on air in Cleveland and New York — started to apply the name “rock ’n’ roll” to R&B, i.e. Black music, making it palatable to the white commercial market. In the process, Freed helped break Berry, among others. Shortly after Presley’s breakout success, Sam Philips would also launch the white rock ’n’ roll (or “rockabilly”) superstars Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Elvis — and rock ’n’ roll itself — first fully blew up on a national level in 1956. After centuries of severe repression and voiceless-ness, at long last the mainstream was ready for its first taste of phenomenal Delta blues, sanctified Black gospel, and rock ’n’ roll — all music grounded in the very distillation of the Black experience. This music quickly took over popular youth culture around the world and became unbelievably lucrative in the process. And no one benefitted more than … a 19-year-old white kid named Elvis Presley. And the rest is American history.
But there is an important question: Why wasn’t Elvis more outspoken during the volatile and crucial civil rights era of the ’60s? There may be no clear answer, especially since Presley was not particularly forthcoming or outspoken on the topic.
One reason could have been that Elvis felt he had already shown where he stood by openly embracing African American culture the way he did, and he made some significant gestures. Or maybe Elvis didn’t fully believe in the cause? Or maybe Presley just did not have the guts to risk upsetting his core fan base by being socially or politically assertive? Recall that Elvis was also unable to get himself out from under the control of his overbearing manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, who wanted Elvis to be strictly apolitical and safe (recall Elvis’s dutiful military service from 1958 to 1960). Indeed, for all of his power as a performer, Elvis clearly was very much human with very real shortcomings, as evidenced by his struggles to stay relevant in the ’60s and ’70s and especially by a crippling drug addiction.
Still, Presley had a massive, worshipful audience during that time period — one that had largely fragmented along racial lines. It would certainly have been fascinating to know what impact a more socially active Elvis might or might not have had.
This brings the Elvis legacy full circle. It doesn’t seem that anyone can fairly question his talent, vision, or ambition, nor whether he was an authentic performer. And there is a wealth of credible evidence to show that Presley publicly acknowledged his musical roots, had strong personal bonds with African Americans, and that he did not set out with any specific intention to exploit or rip-off Black culture.
Given that early rock ’n’ roll was as emotionally and sexually charged as any phenomenon the world had seen, it had to be a white guy to break it wide-open on The Ed Sullivan Show. Rock was simply too shocking, otherwise. And Elvis’s success did help open the door for the white mainstream to accept Black rock ’n’ rollers. In sum, Presley was simply a talented and well-intentioned white guy whose life and career aligned with a remarkable time in American history.
Yet, completely aside from his intentions, in every practical sense the result of the Elvis story is one of clear exploitation. To recap, a group in power excluded, isolated, and repressed a minority population. A member of, and molded by, the dominant class — and who was thus acceptable and more “familiar” to the mainstream — then extracted something of great value out of the repressed community for his and the mainstream’s benefit. He received tons of credit and money for his efforts.
Thus, the Elvis story is a textbook example of de facto colonialism. Again, Elvis’ success and fame are so deeply rooted in race as to be entirely inseparable from his being white — his inherent whiteness?
If Presley had been blatantly racist, everything in this story would seem to make more sense. There would be a clear enemy to point a finger at: a hateful, blatant cultural exploiter and/or racist. And, of course, it is always easier to fight an enemy when a face has been put to it.
In truth, however, the fact that Presley was not overtly racist actually further highlights the power and shear insidiousness of unintended and institutionalized racism. Most white Americans today could probably say with a pretty clear conscience “I’m not racist” and be done with it. But as with the story of Elvis and the origin of rock ’n’ roll, there is far, far more to the tale. One can be a part of a larger world of inherent whiteness and exploitation — and benefit from it — whether wittingly or not.
No doubt there can also be claims of institutionalized racism when it is not present, which needs to be recognized when it occurs. However, the lesson of Elvis’s life and legacy seems to be that when it comes to race, real justice requires an extremely proactive effort from those in power to see the bigger picture and to make an effort to see the world from someone else’s perspective. If, as a society, we have yet to fully learn this lesson and reconcile viewpoints with regards to arguably the biggest, most visible celebrity of the entire twentieth century, what else are we missing?
Recall again Orwell’s observation of the universal human need for “a constant struggle” just to see what is right in front of our very noses. Also recall the story of two fish out for a swim one day. One fish says to the other, “The water sure is cold today,” to which the second fish replies, “What’s water?”
-James A. Cosby, 2020
- This essay is adapted, in part, from James A. Cosby, Devil’s Music, Holy Rollers and Hillbillies: How America Gave Birth to Rock and Roll (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2016).
NOTE: This essay was also published on this Medium account under a different title.
Altschuler, Glenn C. All Shook Up: How Rock and Roll Changed America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Baldwin, James, and Esquire Editors. “James Baldwin: How to Cool It.” Esquire. October 9, 2017. Accessed June 3, 2018. https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a23960/james-baldwin-cool-it/.
Cosby, James A. Devil’s Music, Holy Rollers and Hillbillies: How America Gave Birth to Rock and Roll. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2016.
Doss, Erika. Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, & Image. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.
Greco Larson, Stephanie. Media & Minorities the Politics of Race in News and Entertainment. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
Guralnick, Peter. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.
Top L. Elvis Presley stamp, U.S. Postal Service (1992). © United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.
Top R. Image Source-Trikosko, M. S., photographer. (1963) Marchers with signs at the March on Washington, 1963. Washington D.C, 1963. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013648849/.