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How the South Changed Elvis and How Elvis Changed the South.

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Madison Collier

Rachel Bryan

English 102.003

25 February 2019

How the South Changed Elvis and How Elvis Changed the South.

Elvis Presley is undoubtedly the most significant figure in twentieth-century American music. Not only is his music phenomenal, but his story is too, and that is precisely why he is so intriguing to research. Born into an impoverished family in East Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis fought his way to the top despite the many forces pushing against him. Promising a better life for himself and his family when he was only four, young Elvis had large expectations for the future ahead of him. The journey he took in his younger years to get his start in the music industry, and how his southern roots impacted his career is one worth discussing in order to further understand how he has impacted our culture today. Aspects such as his home life as a child, his life in Tupelo, Mississippi, exposure to southern religion, his time in Memphis, Tennessee as a young musician on the verge of being discovered, and his controversial music style all derived from his southern heritage and shaped him into the icon we remember today.

Elvis was born in a tiny two-bedroom shotgun house in East Tupelo, Mississippi--an area referenced to by locals disparagingly--in an impoverished family unable to even pay the fifteen-dollar physician’s fee. Both parents had traditional, low wage jobs, as did many southerners in the area during that time. Growing up seeing his parents move from job to job--struggling to support their little family of three--inspired Presley to pursue his dream in order to provide a better life for them. Christine Wilson, in her article “Elvis Presley: The Early Years,” states that “at age four, Elvis, overhearing his parents fret about paying the bills, revealed his plans for looking after his family… he would buy two Cadillacs, one for his mother and father and one for him” once he became famous (Wilson). The dream to someday provide a better life for his family was the main source of encouragement for Elvis throughout his career due to the experiences in the destitute southern environment he was raised in. In Tupelo, the Presley family members were social outcasts, almost invisible. They had no money, reputation, influence, or education, and they therefore had no social position in the city that was obsessed with tradition. In his early years, Presley’s father was arrested and sentenced to prison for eight months, a traumatic event for a then almost four-year-old Elvis, creating a sense of abandonment and isolation. After his release, Vernon struggled to provide for his family, forcing them to become renters and move from house to house for years, producing a very unstable environment for Elvis. Wilson points out that the only constant thing in his life was his religion and attending church regularly where he was introduced to his love of music. Elvis most likely felt a connection to music due to the stability and reliability it provided in stark contrast to his life at that point in time.

In the South, religion and community are important aspects of the lives of many residents including the Presley family. Last Train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick delves into the complete life of Elvis Presley and his rags-to-riches story. The book goes into detail as to how Elvis came to love music and where he got his start, including his first guitar and the constant presence that religion had in his life. His first performances in front of audiences were in that of a small East Tupelo church, the Assembly of God church. Presley and his parents would often sing in the church choir and the minister, Frank Smith, taught young Elvis how to play guitar. Making appearances in county talent shows and school events, Presley’s love for music was evident to those around him, and he soon became a known singer in the community as well as in his own church. After Smith taught him how to play guitar, he encouraged Elvis to start playing for special portions of the church services. Guralnick quotes the minister saying, “I would have to insist on him getting up there, he didn’t push himself…he sang quite a few times, and he was liked” (Guralnick 20). To Smith, Elvis’ commitment to music was strong, as he often joined other Tupeloans to attend the WELO Jamboree where he would sing and play guitar simply for the joy it brought to him. These strong ties to southern community and religion introduced Elvis to his love of music and encouraged him to pursue his talents. If no such connection was ever made, the history of Elvis Presley would look drastically different as well as the history of music.

        In 1948, the Presley family migrated to Memphis, Tennessee--a place that would prove to be highly influential in Elvis’ career and crucial to the development of his style of music. It was here where he absorbed the culture of Southern popular music in the form of blues, country, bluegrass, and gospel as well as his flashy manner of dress (Goldman 61). The diversity of the music stations in Memphis is what introduced Elvis to a variety of sounds that he would later draw inspiration from. Perhaps the most important aspect of his time in Memphis was his discovery by Sam Phillips of Sun Records, a primarily R&B recording studio. Presley walked in one day to record a song for his mother as well as gain the attention of the prominent recording artist. Even though Phillips was not immediately blown away by Presley’s talent, he would eventually win him over and Phillips would pair him with two other musicians who would ultimately record their first hit “That’s All Right” which would quickly soar to number three on the local Country-Western charts. Two months after, Elvis was invited to the Grand Ole Opry where, unfortunately, his music style was not well received and was considered highly controversial. However, after the first hit spread across the country, Presley was offered more style-appropriate performance opportunities and his music career began to take off.

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