In 1936, a novel was published that captured the imaginations of millions. Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gone With The Wind” – adapted into a blockbuster film in 1939 – portrayed the American South as a place of wealth and noble gentility where beautiful belles in hoop skirts dwelled in white-columned antebellum plantations and were pursued by handsome, gallant gentlemen suitors. In the mind’s eye of so many beyond the South, it was a land where we all sat on our breezeways shaded from the sultry sun, sipped mint juleps and danced gentle waltzes at the cotillion.
Bearing a stark contrast to those romanticized images were absurd rustic characters such as the farcical “Ma and Pa Kettle,” first appearing in a 1947 movie and then featured in about a dozen films from 1949 to 1957. Firmly cemented was the stereotype in complete diametric opposition to grandiloquent country gentry: the “hillbilly.” The archetypal hillbilly was a slow-witted, bumbling, lazy rural oaf to whom audiences could feel a smug sense of superiority. With their blatant exploitation of the classism that has existed in America for ages (a fact many would likely self-righteously deny), the movies did nothing to cultivate positive impressions of country folk – but they raked in beaucoup bucks (revenue for the entire series was estimated at a rather impressive $35 million).
Studies have long shown that people have widely formed their perceptions of Southerners from literature and the media – but especially from movies. Due to that apparent general inability to distinguish the concocted fantasy and escapist entertainment of movies from reality, the people of Appalachia and the Southeastern United States unfortunately became subjected to scathing bias spurred by the unflattering generalizations created and perpetuated by the mass media. Lost and forgotten in the chasm between exaggerated stereotypes of aristocratic, magnolia-blossom debutantes and the antithetical barefoot hayseed bumpkins were the many diverse, dynamic, real life individuals comprising the region’s populace. Among them were – and still are – a cross-section of decent, good-natured, industrious, intelligent, sturdy people with solid values who have felt largely dispossessed by these satirical and heavily-embellished depictions. Plainly stated, the media has traditionally not been kind to Southerners.
But by the mid-20th Century, a “flash” from Tupelo, Mississippi would detonate a cultural explosion that rocked the world, changing broadly held negative misconceptions of Southerners and eliciting an avalanche of seemingly universal adoration. Elvis’ significance to his fellow indigenes of the American South has always far transcended his music and his movies. It is more than simply an intense admiration; it is a deep connection and very real sense of kinship that so many throughout this region feel.
Elvis was not the progeny of nobility. Rather, he was the sole child of young, struggling parents living in the country’s most impoverished state. Compounding that plight was the fact he was born in an era of runaway economic stratification: the Great Depression. Author Elaine Dundy noted in her 2004 book, “Elvis and Gladys” that as a toddler, Elvis sat on his mother’s six-foot long tow sack as she dragged him up and down cotton rows while laboring during the autumn picking season. Among the harsh realities Elvis and his family shared with so many others of that collective circumstance were that survival was a matter of day-to-day struggle, material possessions were meager – and things of an incorporeal quality were embraced as an escape and salvation. Music and spirituality were so closely intertwined, at times one could not tell where one ended and the other began.
The music that emanated from front pews, front porches and back fields was a staple of the region’s majority descendants of sturdy Scots-Irish stock, of the African Americans brought here not of their own accord who had long been acquainted with grievous inequity and despair, and of those with Native American ancestry who for centuries have possessed an acutely supernatural connection with the land, but whose forebears had been so cruelly ripped away from it. Elvis was a product of the then oft-overlooked stratum of Southern society where different cultures met, co-existed and so frequently intermingled harmoniously. Shared hardships – including racial and classist discrimination – were a uniting force between many Southerners, black, white and “red.” It was in music that the embattled, the weary and the brokenhearted had a voice.
While shamefully, many elitist Southern political powerbrokers grandstanded in protest of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court case declaring separate schools for black and white students unconstitutional, it would be through music that some of the first substantial cultural strides were made to bust down the walls of segregation.
While many retrospectively idealize the 1950’s in America as a time when white bread, suburbanite innocence prevailed and everyone was nice to one another, they have either been grossly misinformed or are practicing revisionist history. This, after all, was the heyday of the rabidity of McCarthyism. Bigotry, intolerance and exploitation of the weak and “underclass” had long been rampant practices nationwide. The introduction of child labor laws and the fight for fair wages, safe working conditions and for various civil liberties were not-so-distant memories – and there were many battles yet to fight as the Civil Rights Era was dawning. As unpalatable as the observation may be, the stark truth is that the country had long been controlled by wealthy, powerful white men of aristocratic lineage who, despite the nation’s ideals on paper, often did not put those ideals into practice.
Elvis’ emergence was a jolt to the straight-laced façade of innocence and tranquility of the day as he helped inject the daring musical fusion of Rockabilly into the national consciousness. However, his charisma and sincerity were more powerful than the futile, vicious attempts to demonize him. Those who resolved to resent and to disparage him as an insolent and unrefined hick wound up eating a heaping dish of Memphis-style deep fried crow. Even crooner Frank Sinatra, who harshly and very publicly lambasted his music as “rancid” and “deplorable” – mostly because he felt threatened by his soaring popularity – became a close friend, finding him to be “a warm, considerate and generous man.” As the world would quickly discover, there was nothing about Elvis that could be disliked or resisted as he insinuated himself into the lives and psyches of virtually everyone on the planet.
Elvis embodied the best of everything about the South: The gentle spirituality, the fervent passion, the gracious humility, the hospitable warmth, the engaging manner… and arguably, every element of what is commonly referred to as “Southern charm.” Elvis was the quintessential personification of Southern charm. Without intentionally setting forth to do so, he made Southerners proud to be from the South – while everyone else on earth wished they were too. For more than half a century – and despite his passing from this walk of life almost 32 years ago, he has prominently served as the world’s ambassador to the South.
Even underneath a layer of gold lamé and sequined jumpsuits, Elvis retained the heart, soul and essence of a country boy. And wherever he went, he took Southern culture right along with him. He did not change, nor did he ever shirk or deny his heritage or upbringing. As he transformed into the world's most famous face and voice, Hollywood’s highest-paid actor and the top recording artist of all time, he no doubt could have feasted on the finest, most exclusive cuisine prepared by the most prestigious culinary experts the world over. Yet, soul food remained his preferred sustenance: meatloaf, pork chops, potatoes, turnip greens, butterbeans, biscuits, hot water cornbread… the same food he ate when his family didn't have two nickels to rub together.
As his meteoric rise to superstardom may have seemed on the surface to be a very unlikely story, his fellow Southerners have always understood that Elvis succeeded not in spite of his upbringing and the myriad struggles he was exposed to – but rather, because of them. Those experiences indelibly shaped him. Without them, he wouldn't have been who he was. And as we followed his phenomenal career, we not only celebrated for him; in many ways, we celebrated right along with him. Borrowing from the words of author Kathryn Tucker Windham, it is as if the South is just one big, shared front porch where "everybody is kin to everybody else." He was one of us… like a member of our own family. Down here, that sense of kinship with Elvis remains just as real and alive to this very day. The dynamic between Elvis and the people of his region is deep and complex, yet so very simple: He belongs with us – and he belongs to us.
It has been said many times through the years that Elvis is the embodiment of the American dream. He has been described as a cultural touchstone. The voice of a generation. But to those of us from this kudzu-drenched clime who share his upbringing, his culture, his heritage and his accent… and those of us who did not require the obliging "Polk Salad Annie" preface delineating the edible weed, he has always been so much more than those things. Elvis was, is and always will be our champion; a Southern brother who did well.
"He is from us... He is all that is best of dark and bright; familiar and unique, human and divine. Our boy…"
© 2009.2013 Pamela Mays Decker
Pamela Mays Decker is a writer from Birmingham, Alabama – which is also home to the world's largest iron statue: the bare-bottomed Roman god of fire and forge, Vulcan.