Monday, October 29, 2007 10/29/07-Radio and Apartheid

In today's excerpt--Elvis Presley, the radio, and social revolution:

"[Radio] made Elvis an agent provocateur. ... Radio helped Elvis develop his interest in and affection for the music of black culture. In that pre-rock'n'roll era, America was an apartheid nation and in much of the country, black and white didn't mix. ... Segregation was relatively easy to enforce. It was the law. ...

"But radio did not respect Jim Crow. Radio traveled through the air, and the air did not recognize arbitrary lines drawn by men. ... At night, during that magic time when the ionization layers shifted ... white kids tuned the dial and found WDIA in Memphis ('Mother Station of the Negro' was its slogan) or maybe WLAC out of Nashville. 'You'd never even seen a black person--there weren't any in your town. But suddenly, you found this music, and it was like nothing you'd ever heard before.'

"The Presleys were poor, but they did have a radio, and that was the music that ignited Elvis. The music also rose from his religious beliefs--a bond forged in poverty and not by race--that led his family to tent-show revivals where he heard gospel music sung as no white person had sung it. (Years later, during his Vegas period, Elvis ended up after-hours singing gospel music through the night with James Brown. Brown said Elvis was the only man he knew, white or black, who knew more gospel songs than he did.)

"What became rock'n'roll in the 1950s arose from the twin subcultures of poverty in white and black America. ... And though there is some truth to the claim that rock'n'roll is just black folks' music played by white guys, the road did go both ways. ... Up in St. Louis, a black kid named Chuck Berry learned to write narrative songs by listening to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night.

"It took a while, but radio sparked a musical revolution that led to a social revolution. Elvis was the visible embodiment of the musical revolution. ... 'Hearing him the first time was like busting out of jail,' Bob Dylan recalled. 'I just knew I wasn't going to work for anybody; nobody was going to be my boss.' ... Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones--they all said they did what they did because of Elvis. Keith Richards said he'd likely be an accountant today ... if he hadn't heard rock'n'roll."

William McKeen, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Elvis," American History, August 2007, pp. 24-25.


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