I wanted to post this on Sunday. It would have made more sense since it would have been The King’s 77th birthday. It was a tough day for me as my Papa (that’s what I called my Dad) died last year. He was a big Elvis fan. When I go to services I get lost in my thoughts. I think about Papa a lot. So I knew this day was going to be tough. Man was I wrong.

I opened the print out of the services and noticed the title of the sermon (see the post title). “No way”, I thought. “Can’t be the same Elvis, Right?” Then came time. I loved every second of the sermon. I was thinking of Papa but not in a bad way…in a “damn I wish he were here to hear this” way. Again not in the sad “I wish he were here” way. Does that make sense?

So the service ends and I have yet to meet Reverend Benjamin Maucere but I quickly hunted him down, praised his sermon and asked if I could have it. I could tell he was taken aback (as I stated I have yet to meet the man and I practically ran over to him). He asked me to email him and he gladly sent his words. I am so happy I have it. I’m going to share it with you now. Enjoy

The Gospel According to Elvis
The Reverend Benjamin Maucere
Community Unitarian Church at White Plains
January 8, 2012

From Gillian Welch, (and David Rawlings, “Elvis Blues.”)
I was thinking that night about Elvis
The day that he died, day that he died
I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died

Just a country boy that combed his hair
And put on a shirt his mother made
and went on the air

And he shook it like a chorus girl
And he shook it like a Harlem queen
He shook it like a midnight rambler, baby,
Like you never seen,
never seen, never seen.

He was born a poor white child, to Vernon and Gladys Presley, Seventy-seven years ago— January 8, 1935. In Tupelo Mississippi. His twin brother Jesse was stillborn. His first home was a two room house with no indoor plumbing, built by his daddy Vernon. When he was three years old, Vernon was convicted for forgery for changing the amount on a paycheck from $3 to $8 and was sentenced to three years at Parchment Farms Penitentiary.

Then Vernon’s boss called in a note that Vernon had signed to borrow money to build their house. They couldn’t pay it of course, so they lost even that poor shack! Gladys moved in with Vernon’s parents until he got out of prison. He was released after serving eight months.

Afterward Vernon’s employment was spotty and the family lived just above the poverty line.

Ok, so picture this: In the fifth grade, Elvis gets his first taste of success. His teacher encourages him to enter a talent contest on children’s day at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. So here he is: this ten year old kid, dressed in a cowboy outfit, standing on a chair to reach the microphone. The other kids have someone playing piano or guitar for their accompaniment; Elvis sings, a capella, a country song called “Old Shep” and wins second place. The prize is $5 – the same amount his father was convicted for stealing. On his birthday the following January he asked for a bicycle but instead his momma gave him a guitar she bought from the Tupelo Hardware Store. Over the next year, Vernon’s brother Johnny Smith and Assembly of God pastor Frank Smith gave him basic guitar lessons. Later, in Memphis, another Assembly of God minister teaches him more advanced chords.

Those Assembly of God services gave him something much greater. In his book Mystery Train (Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music) Greil Marcus points out that much of Elvis’s music and his hipshake can be traced to his religion – and Elvis was the first to say so. “Church music caught moments of unearthly peace and desire, and the strength of the religion was in its intensity. The preacher
rolled fire down the pulpit
and chased it into the aisle,
signifying;
men and women rocked in their seats,
sometimes onto the floor,
bloodying their fingernails scratching and clawing
in a lust for absolute sanctification. . .
it was a faith meant to transcend the grimy world that called it up. . .
the impulse to dream,
the need to escape,
the romance and the contradictions of the land,
this was a source of energy, tension, and power.”

The other source of energy tension and power was the musical and cultural stew that was Memphis, where the family moved, to public housing, in 1948.
While Jim Crow laws enforced segregation, in Memphis poor whites and blacks lived close together. Beale Street had bars where Blacks performed to a mixed audience. On the radio you could hear everything – country, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, pop: Dean Martin, Perry Como, Mario Lanza’s opera, and blues singers Big Bill Broonsy, Big Boy Crudup, Johnny Ace – Elvis listened to it all and somehow internalized it.
Marcus contends that, “It is often said that if Elvis had not come along to set off the changes in American music and American life that followed his triumph, someone very much like him would have done the job as well. But there is no reason to think this is true, either in strictly musical terms, or in any broader cultural sense. It is vital to remember that Elvis was the first young Southern white to sing rock ‘n’ roll, something he copied from no one but made up on the spot; and to know that even though other singers would come up with a white version of the new black music acceptable to teenage America, of all who did emerge in Elvis’ wake, none sang it a powerfully, or with more than a touch of his magic.”
Carl Perkins put it more simply, “This boy had everything. He had the looks, the moves, the manager, and the talent. And he didn’t look like Mr. Ed like a lot of the rest of us did. In the way he looked, way he talked, way he acted… he really was different.”
I think this next part of the story is pretty well known. The Star is Born myth begins with the demo record for Sam Phillips and the Sun recordings.
As background, here’s the photomontage: Elvis, every day it didn’t rain, slinging his guitar on his back and taking it to school, practicing chords during lunch. School bullies grabbing it and cutting the strings as a prank against the hillbilly “white trash.” Elvis at the all night gospel concerts at Ellis Auditorium, watching the live broadcasts of country singers at the WMPS studio. Picture him in high school. Most boys wearing slacks and button down shirts and flat-tops, and here’s the kid with the funny name growing his hair and sideburns long, outfitting himself in pink and black shirts with the collar turned up, black pants with a pink stripe, and a bolero jacket. (Wilborn Hampton, Elvis Presley, a Twentieth-century Life.)
There are the requisite discouragements that accompany any good myth. The High School music teacher who gave Elvis a “C” because she said he couldn’t sing. He challenges her, saying that she just doesn’t appreciate his music. He brings his guitar the next day and sings her a song. She tells him that he’s right. . . she doesn’t appreciate his kind of singing.
There’s the night club, the High Hat Club, where the band is looking for a singer. He auditions and the band leader tells him he should stick to driving a truck, ‘cause he wasn’t gonna make it as a singer. Don’t quit your day-job indeed!
Ok, now we’re ready. Sam Phillips owns the Memphis Recording Service which offers a chance to make your own record for $4.00. Phillips also has a record company as a sideline called Sun Records that primarily makes blues records. Phillips had recorded B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Ma Rainey, but Phillips had an idea— that a new music—some combination of gospel, blues, and country—was gonna be the next big thing.
Elvis comes in, ostensibly to make a record for his momma as a belated birthday present, but really to try and get discovered. Marion Keisker, Phillips’ only employee, asks Elvis, “what kind of singer are you?” “I sing all kinds,” He replies. “Who do you sound like?” “I don’t sound like nobody.”
He recorded a couple of sentimental country songs – nothing special. Elvis kept coming back around the studio asking if there was any work for a backup singer. Something about him stayed with Phillips. He called Elvis back a few times. Then Phillips enlisted lead guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black to work with Presley. They had several sessions, striving for the musical breakthrough they believed was possible, yet just out of reach.
In one of those sessions, after trying a bunch of pop songs and ballads that didn’t click, Presley idly picked up his guitar and began to play around with a blues song, “That’s Alright Mama.” “Acting the fool” is how he later put it. Scotty Moore started goofing on the song as well.
Phillips comes into the studio and asks “what are you doing?” “I don’t Know,” says Scotty. “Well do it again! You got something. Do it again, I’ll get it down. Just like that, don’t mess with it. Keep it simple.”
“They cut the song fast, put down their instruments, vaguely embarrassed at how far they went into the music. Sam plays back the tape. Man, they’ll run us outta town when they hear it, Scotty says. . . .
“Get on home now, Sam says. I gotta figure what to do with this.
“They leave, but Sam Phillips is perplexed. Who is gonna play this crazy record? White jocks won’t touch it ‘cause it’s [black] music and colored will pass ‘cause it’s hillbilly. It sounds good, it sounds sweet, but maybe it’s just . . . too weird? The hell with it.
Two days later Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips played “That’s All Right” on his Red Hot and Blue show on radio station WHBQ. Audience response was overwhelming and later that night Presley came in for his first interview. Scotty Moore became his manager and “That’s All Right” b/w “Blue Moon of Kentucky” became his first local hit. And you pretty much know how it goes after that.
Greil Marcus writes, “Elvis’ Memphis records – “Milkcow Blues Boogie,” “You’re a Heartbreaker,” “All Shook Up,” and others . . . deserve close and loving attention not simply because it represents all that Elvis and those he sang for have lost – youthful exuberance, innocence, haven’t we tired of that story? – but because this is unquestionably great music, fun to think about . . . .emotionally complex music that can return something new each time you listen to it. What I hear, most of the time, is the affection and respect Elvis felt for the limits and conventions of his family life, his community, and ultimately of American life, captured in his country sides; and his refusal of those limits, of any limits, played out in his blues. This is a rhythm of acceptance and rebellion, lust and quietude, triviality and distinction. It can dramatize the rhythm of our own lives well enough.”
I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died

How he took it all
out of black and white
Grabbed his wand in the other hand
and he held on tight
And he shook it like a hurricane
He shook it like to make it break
And he shook it like a holy roller, baby
With his soul at stake, soul at stake. . .
What was the magic? What hath Elvis wrought?
Consider Elvis as an archetypical, liminoid figure; a bridge spanning black and white, rhythm & blues and country, childhood and adulthood, sacred and profane, the 50’s and the 60’s and beyond.
Liminality is a threshold state – betwixt and between realities. Dawn can be liminal. The twilight zone is liminal. The period between waking and sleep.
Liminality is a term in social anthropology first identified as the ecstatic phase in the rituals of so-called primitive people which leads to communitas, or a new social order. A common element of ecstatic ritual is the use of percussion, chanting and bodily movement to promote a change in consciousness.
Social Anthropologist Victor Turner expanded the concept to apply to contemporary life, writing that “Liminality is now seen to apply to all phases of decisive cultural change, in which previous orderings of thought and behavior are subject to revision and criticism, when hitherto unprecedented modes of ordering relations between ideas and people become possible and desirable.” (Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives.)
The function of ecstatic ritual, Turner proposed, was to keep the social structure from becoming overly rigid and unstable by providing occasional relief in the form of collective excitement and festivity.
The common element of all ecstatic ritual is embodiment.
Mid-twentieth century American culture was suspicious of embodiment and deeply restrictive of physical movement . Barbara Ehrenreich (Dancing in the Streets) suggests that Rock ‘n’ roll “struck with such force, in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, because the white world it entered was frozen over and brittle — not only physically immobilizing but emotionally restrained. Entertainment, for example, meant sitting and watching TV or movies. . . walking had been made largely obsolete by suburbanization and the automobile culture . . . dancing meant primarily ballroom dancing, choreographed fox-trots or waltzes that allowed little individual variation. . . For females, even sex was meant to be motionless and passive. The leading marital advice book of mid-twentieth-century America warned against female ‘movements’ during sex – the idea being disturbing enough to merit italics.”
Rock broke all that loose. Young white women jumped up and down, screamed, cried, fainted. “Rock, with its demands for immediate and unguarded physical participation, thawed the coolness, summoned the body into action, and blasted the mind out of the isolation and guardedness that had come to define the Western personality.” (Ehrenreich p 214)
By the mid-1960’s an alternative culture had come into being, created by the confluence of rock music, civil rights, and the war in Vietnam. It behaved just as Turner had described, challenging the dominant social structures of government, corporations, church and family.
Elvis beat the machine – he rose above all that was regimented and soulless and sterile. Elvis, who as an individual had broken free of his race and class limitations and acted as a catalyst for all that would follow, was left behind, forced to witness his own obsolescence and decline.
Gillian Welch, when she was thinkin’ about him in her song Elvis Blues was thinking about another American mythological hero, the steel-drivin’ man who beat the machine; one who died at the height of his powers; spared the indignities suffered by Elvis:
I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died

He was all alone
in a long decline

Thinking how happy John Henry was
that he fell down and died

When he shook it and he rang like silver
He shook it and he shined like gold
He shook it and he beat that steam drill, baby
Well bless my soul
Bless my soul
But how could we let him die?
The Elvis sightings tell us that a part of him remains.
Strap on a guitar
or do a little hipshake
or curl your lip and smile
and know
that you are a hunk a hunk of burning love
and that polite sexy rebel is a part of you.
He’s in us and he’s got to come out.
Bless his soul. And ours.
AMEN.
And thank you. Thank you very much.

6 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.