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Monday, May 25, 2020
Current Affairs ... History ... Music ...

The COVID crisis has changed a lot of things, big and small. One of the smaller and more subtle changes that I’ve noticed involves the songs being played on the local radio stations. The playlist now seems a little more somber and serious than before. I guess that’s what fits the mood right now.

I was recently listening to an oldies station (I’m not a big fan of pop music from the 50s thru 80s, but I still like the station), and I heard a song by Elvis – which is not unusual, since oldies stations pretty much exist to play Elvis songs. But this was one of Elvis’s later songs, the ones that are not nearly as famous and don’t get played as much as “Hound Dog”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, “Jailhouse Rock”, etc.

I was never a big fan of Elvis; to me, he was “before my time”. Although admittedly he still had a lot of hit tunes in the mid 60s and into the 70s, when I became a transistor radio kid. I came of age with the Beatles, Dave Clark Five, the Stones, Jerry and the Pacemakers — i.e. the “British Wave”.

But from 1968 thru 70, Elvis came out with some songs that seemed very different from his usual style. They seemed more introspective, more story-telling, more human-oriented. I still enjoy hearing “Kentucky Rain“. Elvis was no longer just a kid singing “All Shook Up” (and getting filthy rich and famous for it!).

But during this period, Elvis put out two other songs that were not just introspective, but were actually socially aware and concerned with injustice. The first was In The Ghetto, from 1969. In the tumult of the late 60s, this song “made Elvis relevant again”.

It told a tragic story from a place with too much tragedy, i.e. an underprivileged American urban neighborhood (the lyrics refer to a “cold and gray Chicago morning” where a poor little child is born; could be South Chicago, Englewood, Calumet, etc.). Elvis was from the deep south (Mississippi), and grew up surrounded by the families and culture of African-Americans. Later on in his career, he grew to appreciate that the rock ‘n roll style of music that made him famous had its origins and roots in the black culture. He thus adopted other elements from it, especially Gospel music techniques (as is apparent in “In The Ghetto”).

The second song, the one I recently heard, actually came a few months before In The Ghetto. This was “If I Can Dream“. I liked this song almost immediately, after first hearing it back in late 1968. But at the time, I didn’t realize and appreciate exactly what this song was about. The references to hope, light, and dreams trying to evolve from darkness and pain are quite universal, and can appeal to many aspects of human experience.

However, the writer of the song (Walter E. Brown), together with Elvis, were specifically referring to the speeches and messages of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated in Memphis, a few miles from Elvis’ Graceland estate, just a few months before the song was recorded. The lyrics are either direct quotes or paraphrases of King’s own words in his struggle for racial justice.

When you watch Elvis perform If I Can Dream, you can see that he was truly putting his heart and soul into it. Supposedly he was down on his knees while recording the final cut; earlier in the session, some of the band members were “taken aback” by the power of Elvis’ singing. I myself haven’t heard this song in decades, so when I watched a video of Elvis singing “If I Can Dream”, I myself was a bit taken aback. You can hear the Gospel influences, the music from the church halls where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his momentous words. While watching Elvis, I was just about ready to emulate the congregations who sat in the pews where Dr. King spoke — I was just about to start shouting “SING IT KING, SING IT”.

And then I thought — which “King” are we talking about here?

PS, let’s also give Elvis credit also for “An American Trilogy” of 1972. Elvis mostly used this songs at concerts in the 1970s. It was released as a single, but got little airplay. Still, it was a crowdpleaser in the concert halls, as Elvis went “full power” at the finish. Elvis called on his southern roots in this song and raised the history of the American Civil War, combining “Dixieland” (the adopted song of the Confederacy), “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (the marching song of the Union Army), and “All My Trials”, an African American spiritual tune. American Trilogy reminds the nation that even if the shooting war is long over, the scars from the racial inequality and injustice which drove the nation into such a terrible cataclysm have still not healed. Unfortunately, this has only become all the more apparent in the early 21st Century, and especially now during the COVID pandemic.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:14 pm      
 
 


  1. Thanks for the post. I also had considered Elvis to be before my time also, but it is probably more accurate to say that I never considered myself a fan of him.

    I AM a big fan of “in the ghetto”, but I didn’t know that Elvis was the singer. I don’t recall the other songs you mentioned, but they were worth listening to.

    I wish more of our current songs had social commentary, or perhaps they are out there, but I am not aware of them? Why can’t there be good songs about global warming or police bias or economic justice?

    Comment by Zreebs — May 27, 2020 @ 4:01 am

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