Friday, May 28, 2010

On being American...or not (Elvis Presley's "American Trilogy")

On this vacation day, somehow this song has ingrained itself in my mind - Elvis Presley's "American Trilogy."

As the title implies, this medley (originally conceived by Mickey Newbury) consists of three songs, each of which is bound to offend someone or another. Atheists presumably don't care for "All My Trials." Peace-lovers (especially atheist peace-lovers) presumably don't care for the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

And then there's "Dixie," which has caused and still causes a variety of reactions:

"Dixie" -- a song strongly identified with the South -- stirs emotion and exposes timeworn rifts across American society.

It has been that way almost since "Dixie" was born in the days just before the Civil War. Adopted as a Confederate anthem, it was offered up by President Abraham Lincoln as a gesture of reconciliation after the war. It's accepted with affection by many whites and scorned by many blacks. And yet it's been recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to the Robert Shaw chorale.

And Elvis merited special mention on the song "Fight the Power":

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant ---- to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother---- him and John Wayne
Cause I'm Black and I'm proud
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check

Later, in 2002, Public Enemy's Chuck D clarified:

Public Enemy frontman Chuck D derided Elvis Presley on the group's 1989 anthem "Fight The Power," but it turns out his feelings for Presley are a little more complicated than the song suggests.

"As a musicologist, and I consider myself one, there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions. As a black people, we all knew that," the rapper told Newsday recently.

"My whole thing was the one-sidedness _ like, Elvis' icon status in America made it like nobody else counted ... . My heroes came from someone else. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being `The King,' I couldn't buy that."

Of course, a lot of this depends upon whether you believe that the actions of Elvis, and of Pat Boone and Dan Aykroyd, to cover black artists was a good thing or a bad thing.
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