The 40th anniversary Wednesday of Elvis Presley’s death naturally prompts some comments from yours truly, a lifelong fan. But the events recently in Charlottesville, Virginia, lead me to write about him by taking a different path than I would have otherwise followed.
Elvis was a southerner, born into poverty in Tupelo, Mississippi, then moving at the age of 12 with his family to Memphis, Tennessee. His Dixie roots were a big part of his early notoriety when he burst on the national scene in the 1950s. Part of his “danger,” to the media and, particularly, TV networks, were those southern roots. There was – and still can be — a prejudice against the south by the northerners who controlled the news and entertainment business.
Elvis’ accent was thick, his shy and mumbling mannerisms seemed foreign, his animated performance style and his very look were even considered dirty. The passage of time has diluted just how much Elvis’ “southern-ness” played into his initial impact. It was like he was an invader from Mars. Lock up your daughters, bar the doors.
During his 1970s “concert years,” a showstopper of Elvis’ performances was a medley called “An American Trilogy.” Many people today think of it as nothing more than jump-suited Elvis belting out “Glory, glory Hallelujah.” Kind of hokey, right?
But “Trilogy” is a deep and meaningful arrangement, originally crafted by songwriter Mickey Newbury, and Elvis was well aware of its significance. It combines three Civil War-era songs, telling the story of the North and the South, and, in Elvis’ version, the ultimate triumph over slavery.
The song starts out mournfully with “Dixie” – “Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten, look away, look away, look away, Dixieland.” It was the anthem of the South, with states being urged to “look away” from the North, to form a new union. It then shifts into the marching song of the Union Army: “Glory, glory, Hallelujah. Glory, glory, Hallelujah. Glory, glory, Hallelujah. His truth is marching on.”
So, we have the conflict set up, the song of the South versus the song of the North.
Then the orchestra grows quiet, and Elvis sings, almost a cappella, “All My Trials,” what would have been called in its day a Negro spiritual, a mother singing to her child, “So hush, little baby, don’t you cry. You know your daddy’s bound to die. But all my trials, Lord, will soon be over.” A melancholy flute carries the tune a few more bars before fading out.
Newbury’s original version ended there. But Elvis added a new conclusion. In Elvis’ version, the silence is broken by rumbling drums and blaring horns, and he comes bursting back with a final chorus of “Glory Hallelujah – His truth is marching on.” In the version arranged by Elvis – the ultimate southerner — the North wins, God is triumphant, freedom reigns.
Freedom was a key theme of Elvis’ life and career – the freedom to express yourself musically, the freedom to break conventional norms of appearance and decorum, the freedom to live unshackled, either by chains or by expectations, the freedom to escape poverty. His music was, famously, a blending of blues, country and gospel, a truly racial and cultural mix.
Elvis made no political speeches, participated in no protest marches, and avoided questions about politics. Instead, he expressed himself musically, particularly through specific songs that spoke to him, like “If I Can Dream” and “In the Ghetto.” But through “An American Trilogy,” Elvis let everyone know that despite his southern roots, he applauded the North’s triumph over slavery and bondage.
As we saw over the weekend, the battle over Confederate symbols has not ended. White nationalists – a combination of KKK, neo-Nazis and other haters — arrived in Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s top general. White supremacists, by any name they choose, represent a hateful, despicable form of racism. There’s nothing humorous about them, nothing to make light of, nothing to shrug off in regard to their venom and ignorance.
The best way to “confront” them is to ignore them for the fringe element they are. Unfortunately, everyone knew the media was going to be in Charlottesville, along with a big crowd of counter-protesters, all combining for an explosive and deadly outcome.
The removal of symbols of the Confederacy is painful for a lot of people. Eliminating Confederate flags and statues is asking an entire region of the nation to turn its back on a big part of its identity, not all of which they consider immoral. Many southerners had ancestors who fought gallantly in the Civil War, and they are proud of their forbearers.
But whatever the South in the mid-19th century stood for, it ultimately stood for the right of one set of people to enslave another set of people. I am no fan of political correctness, but this goes beyond that. This cuts to the core of what we hold dear as a nation. In 2017, we should not countenance symbols celebrating the battle to preserve slavery being displayed on government property anywhere in the United States.
Elvis Presley clung proudly to his southern heritage until the day he died. But he also recognized that part of the South’s legacy was reprehensible. If one of history’s most famous southerners could cheer the triumph of the North, others can, too, especially by letting go of the symbols that defend slavery and bondage.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.
Abernathy is publisher and editor of The Times-Gazette in Hillsboro, Ohio.