Elvis Presley ’56

There have been a few explosions in American music that continue to reverberate around the world.

Some time ago, probably before the 1900s, some maniac played a minor blues scale on top of a major chord. The major chord came from Celtic and other European folk forms and the pentatonic blues scale came straight out of Africa via a slave ship. This shotgun wedding gave birth to bluegrass, jazz, gospel and blues. American music subsequently turned the whole world on its newly awakened ear. Musicians in Jamaica heard radio from New Orleans and infused R&B with more African derived rhythms, cross-pollinating it into Blue Beat, Ska, Reggae and Soca. Blues and Jazz festivals thrive from Denmark to Japan, and American music in all its pagan splendor, roots and branches of a million twists and turns, is the prevailing popular culture of the world. Quincy Jones points out that “When folks forgo their own musical culture in favor of American music, it’s not because of a marketing plan, it’s because it speaks to their souls.”

This pervasive influence wouldn’t have been possible without a second resounding explosion. As Muddy Waters stated: “The blues had a baby and they named it Rock and Roll.” It’s post-WWII, and there’s a new crop of kids in unprecedented numbers. We weren’t yet called a “demographic bulge” but we sure were. Preachers and nay-sayers were warning that these “jungle rhythms” were dangerous and that seemed to be just the ticket in the Eisenhower era. I remember seeing Elvis on TV and being aware that this music had power to upset people, to draw a line between “us” and “them.” The originators of the style were the wrong color to be beamed into white living rooms, but we eventually sought them out. We wanted a full-strength dose of this magic.

The explosion was seismic. As it continued into the tumultuous ’60s, it reflected, addressed and affected social events and society at large. No African influence, no field hollers….no blues, no rock and roll. No Johnny Otis, no Little Richard…… and no Beatles. No anonymous cracker playing the blues on a guitar (a European instrument) and no Woody Guthrie. No Woody, no Bob Dylan. Bob has got to be one of the most influential people of the last century, if for no other reason than he’s credited with goading the Beatles to become politically aware and take responsibility for their massive influence. Dylan is arguably more influential, even as a singer, than Elvis. Nobody tries to sing like the King, but thousands of guys are still trying to sing like Dylan.

Every significant creative aspect of pop music happened in the ’60s. The deck has just been endlessly reshuffled since then. Every “new” sound, from synths to studio wizardry is a trifling cosmetic change. That backbeat and the ability to express emotions and celebrate life is still inherent in the music.

Elvis in ’56 is still more dangerous than a thousand death metal bands. Marilyn Manson is an after school special compared to James Brown and Hank Williams. The preacher was right. The music made us move, think, question and pointed the way to something more human and more spiritual than what was laid out so carefully before us. That jungle rhythm is still a call to dance and a call to stand up for our values. That African groove is in our DNA… some of us paler folk just left the “dark continent” a little bit earlier. Elvis was on fire in ’56 and the world was ripe with possibility. If you still believe, it still is.

Posted by Nolan Mendenhall


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