Elvis Presley as Redneck
Speaking at the First Elvis Presley Symposium held at the University of Mississippi on August 7, 1995, Will D. Campbell presented “Elvis Presley as Redneck.” The subject matter took the audience a little off guard, which Mr. Campbell was wont to do. The text has been reprinted in In Search of Elvis: Music, Art, Race, Religion, edited by Vernon Chadwick (Westview Press) and The Baptist Peacemaker magazine, and possibly other places. I haven’t seen those reprints, though. The text produced below comes from a copy which Will handed to me fresh from his printer in 1995, not long after the original presentation. I have decided to include it on Canopic Jar because I think it’s an important document, and unless you’ve happened across the publications mentioned above or were lucky enough to have been at the symposium, you probably missed it. — PR
If we are now to academize Elvis Presley there is one word and concept that must be dealt with at the outset. That word is redneck. It must be dealt with because it is an ugly word, an invective used to defame a proud and tragic people–the poor, white, rural, working class of the South; a word used often to berate Elvis Presley and his people because the word is used as a synonym for bigot. Now if I had said the word we must consider is nigger, chink, Jap, kike, dago, spick, chick, or broad, all of you would have been morally outraged at just hearing those despicable epithets said aloud. At least I hope you would have been. You should have been. But hearing the equally offensive insult, redneck, draws not a flinch in most circles. Only a chuckle.
I say the word and concept must be dealt with because that is the notion that is most often used by the detractors of Mr. Presley to classify and dispose of him. Albert Goldman, in what claimed to be the definitive biography of Mr. Presley, said, “Of all the dumb activities in this dumb working class school about the dumbest was shop; Elvis Presley’s major.” If a center that exists for the study of Southern culture needs any rationale for this symposium that line of Mr. Goldman’s is quite sufficient. Dumb. Working class. Laborer. Redneck. That was all Albert Goldman needed to say to document that his subject was not to be taken seriously. Not his music, his intellect, his acting, and certainly not his heritage and culture; nothing about him was to be seen as of any import. Why, then, did Mr. Goldman need to write about Mr. Presley at all? I do not hold to the conspiratorial interpretation of history–well, that’s not quite true–but I think the answer to that question is that Elvis Presley was a convenient symbol and metaphor to that portion of the larger culture with elitist mentality that holds in utter disgust and even hatred the poor, rural working class of the South; THE REDNECK.
All right, what is a redneck? I have checked every lexicon available to me and the definition does not vary from the following: “REDNECK: Slang. One of the white, rural, working class of the South, used disparagingly.” That is where Elvis Presley came from. That is where I came from. The word does not mean bigot; does not mean racist, though a redneck may be racist, just as one of the fashionable class can be a racist. But redneck and racist are used interchangeably by America’s most sophisticated newspapers and journals today. I think I know why. The word does not mean ignorant, fundamentalist dolt; amoral, gun wielding, pick-up driving bumpkin with squirrel tail flying from the aerial, baby shoes hanging from the rear-view mirror, and a bumper sticker saying “SEE ROCK CITY.” The word means one of the poor, white, rural working class of the South. Used disparagingly. Period. In every dictionary. I repeat myself for emphasis.
Elvis Presley was a redneck because he sprang from the poor, white, rural, working class of the South. He, by all accounts I have found, was not a bigot. I am a redneck because I, too, descended from the poor, white, rural working class of the South, Amite County, Mississippi, in the throes of the Great Depression, and you could not come from a more poor, a more rural, a more working class, a more Southern place than Amite County, Mississippi in the 1920s. In other words, one could not come from more redneck country. But I am not a bigot. Although I don’t like to do it, and never recall doing it before, let me document that I am not a bigot, lest you hear what I am saying as simply the words of a self-conscious, defensive Southerner when I speak protectively of rednecks. I was the only white person at the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King, and was a longtime friend and ally of Dr. King. I walked with the nine Negro children to Central High School in Little Rock in 1957 to face Governor Faubus’s troops with fixed bayonets and a screaming mob. During the Vietnam War I harbored dodgers and deserters in my home and took a number of them to a safe haven in Canada. I was a death target by an extremist group for a time. I am a card carrying member of the ACLU. I oppose the death penalty. I am a passionate supporter of affirmative action for women and racial minorities. And three weeks ago I marched hand-in-hand with and in support of my brilliant and beautiful Lesbian daughter. Am I a redneck? You dang tootin’, as we rednecks are wont to say. And proud of it. Proud, and yet grieved and often ashamed by some of the behavior my people have been maneuvered into by the forces of history, political machinations, and religious deceptions.
And I am growing weary of being the last, the only minority left that is fair game for ethnic slurs from people who would consider themselves good liberals who would, as Dennis Rogers of the Raleigh News and Observer, said recently of those “ . . . warm-hearted, touchy-feely hypocrites who would go into ethnic shock if you told a nasty joke about women, Jews, the blind. Mexicans or starving Ethiopians but who wouldn’t think twice about guffawing at redneck jokes.”
I am growing weary of people like Jeff Foxworthy making millions of dollars with their “You may be a redneck if…” books and television shows. If what? You may be a redneck if you eat fried squirrel and Moonpies for breakfast, for example. Well I ate fried squirrel for breakfast of necessity, sir, but Moon pies were a delicacy for the more affluent. We didn’t have the nickel the Moon pie cost in Amite County, Mississippi in those days. You may be a redneck if you mix Jack Daniels with butterscotch malted milks. Don’t knock it if you ain’t tried it, Mr. Foxworthy, but those of the poor, rural, working class of the South of my youth had neither a surplus of Jack Daniels nor butterscotch ice cream around the house to mix. You may be a redneck if you hang around the bus station all day and pick your nose. Very funny. But put those putdowns in front of the epithets used to describe and insult African-Americans, women, Jews, people of Polish, Italian, Japanese or Chinese extraction, or any other ethnic, racial, or gender minority and see how many of your politically correct friends laugh. But redneck isn’t indexed yet. Well, let’s index it. There comes a time when a body gets weary. There comes a time.
In a recent article in Newsweek magazine one of their finest writers used the epithet for poor, white, rural, working class of the South in the lead article when he stated, “President Clinton can bark orders like a redneck drill sergeant.” I wrote a letter of protest, suggesting that perhaps the epithet “redneck” should be dropped, just as other offensive words have been dropped.
To tell you that the letter was never published would be redundant. An inquiry as to why it was not published, however, might be appropriate. Is it because the larger culture, the allegedly urbane, sophisticated culture needs, and will find or create, someone upon whom to place the blame for our interminable racist society? “We are not racist. They are the racists. Not government. Not commerce and industry. Not the media. Not the mainline churches. Not the academy. They, the rednecks, are the racists.”
That is a blatant lie. It is the ancient craft of scapegoating. America is a racist society to the core and we all know it. Ah, we have dressed it up now. We don’t need a Bilbo, a Pitchfork Ben Tillman to scream “nigger!” from the courthouse steps on election eve to keep poor whites voting right. We have code words. Is it not obvious that last year’s election had to do with race. When we heard talk of welfare abuse it meant welfare for black people, though statistics show more whites than blacks on welfare, when we heard, “…get rid of affirmative action,” it was from those wanting to hang on to the piers of privilege being mildly threatened by enterprising and struggling minorities. “Teen-age pregnancies” meant black teenagers having babies. “Crime in the streets and let’s build more prisons” was a euphemism for incarcerating and executing more black people. Was that not obvious? And is it not manifest already that the next presidential campaign will be waged on that same cunning and pernicious ground? Perhaps not as brazen as the Willie Horton syndrome but the message will be loud and clear.
I think I can make a case that the poor, white, rural, working class, the redneck, is guilty of less true racism than any other group in white American society. Not guilty of less prejudice, perhaps, but less racism. There is a distinction that must be made between racism and prejudice. And between racism and racialism for that matter. (Racialism. A concept that you might want to consider.) I am not saying that all or any one of the poor, working class are without prejudice. History would not bear me out. We can be educated, or converted out of prejudice; sheer raw, naked bigotry. But racism is a condition; the structures, the institutions in which we move and breathe and have our being that give white males the advantage. That is what racism is. Every one of us afflicted with this incurable skin disease called whiteness is a racist. That does not mean we hate black people or wish them ill. It simply means that our skin color has given us ascendance. That is what racism is. Prejudice is something else. Something on a more conscious level. The “redneck” is less racist because he operates from a base of considerably less power. It is not the poor, rural, laboring class that produces the rulers, the governors, the managers of this present age that harbors the racist cycle.
All that to say, Mr. Presley was a redneck. But Mr. Presley was not a bigot. In reality, fairly and critically examined, he and his era might be seen as a crusade for human rights. Consider Mr. Presley’s doleful lament, “On a cold and gray Chicago morn, a little biddy baby boy was born, in the ghetto. And his mama cried.” Those lyrics, written by Mac Davis, tracing that baby through childhood and into early adulthood where the weeping mama’s baby was finally gunned down on the street spoke volumes about, and effectively condemned America’s inherent racism. It was a song of prophesy. So Mr. Presley might be seen, on close examination, to have been an effective social activist whose very being started a revolution throughout the world. Think about it.
For a minute let’s explore something of the history of the poor, white, rural working class of the South from whose loins Mr. Presley sprang. Who is the redneck? Where did he come from and why is he held in such contempt by the more privileged? Why is he the last remaining minority to be made fun of by clowns with the TV cutesies? We can get a clue from the painter and the poet. He is the man with the hoe. Although their subject was the French peasant they also address our subject:
Bowed by the weight of centuries,
He leans upon his hoe and gazes on the ground.
And as he so leaned and so gazed his posture left that cervical area from the temporal bones to the first dorsal vertebra exposed to the searing, shriveling, parching rays of the mid-day Southern sun. And we named him “redneck.”
Historically, he too was a slave. It was a more subtle kind of slavery–indentured servanthood. Serve me for five, seven years and I will set you free. But freedom to what and in what context? Freedom to flounder, to drift, to wander westward in a frustrating search of what had been promised but never delivered–a secure life in a land of plenty. Freedom to fight a Civil War in which he had no stake and then indoctrinated into believing that the post-bellum oppression and poverty were the fault of black people.
Certainly I am not saying that all redneck history can be traced to indentured servanthood. White scholars have not dwelt on it much, but it’s a fact of history. In Virginia at one point more than seventy percent of the white population was of indentured stock. While African-Americans created a conscious culture out of their slavery; a history, art, literature, music, by contrast, the indentured servant, the poor white, ashamed to admit that his progenitors had been brought to these shores as servants, would be more apt to tell his grandchildren that his ancestors landed at Plymouth Rock. Such deception was bound to result in a schizophrenia which may account for more of the hostilities of the redneck than any other historical factor. If he were to deny and conceal his own slavery then he had to dwell on the slavery of others, and with manipulation by the gentry deem himself better because of the color of his skin. Here is his real tragedy. Race has been the trump card used to keep the poor white and the poor black as traditional enemies. It is my belief that the phenomenon, the music, the life of Elvis Presley, with all its foibles, all its warts, sought, perhaps unconsciously, something he simply intuited by being redneck, sensitive, and brilliant, to heal that rift, to bring the two to see that their tragedies were the same; the same pain, the same maltreatment and exploitation, the same enemy that continues to promote the cleft between them for political and economic gain. The most recent documentation of this is the poor white buying the fraudulent contract with America that he, and to a lesser extent she, was deceived into thinking was to his or her advantage when in fact the intent was to their detriment. Race has essentially dictated the history of America and it is bringing us down. Point to one significant political era when race was not a crucial and even dominating factor.
Can you see now why it is important to consider the world of the redneck if you are serious about understanding the historical, social, and cultural significance of Elvis Presley? This is the framework on which so much of the writing about Mr. Presley has been predicated. Many, not all but many, writers have cast him in the light of the redneck, which he was, but the ergo, the conclusion has been that he need not be taken seriously, that he was not one of the strongest influences in twentieth century America and is not a fit subject for serious research by the academy. Only recently, when a shy, modest, self-effacing major player in the drama, Gene Smith, though until now saw lies and distortions used to line the pockets of greedy writers and “tell all” bystanders stepped forth to share the things he knows for truth because he was there and lived them, only now are we beginning to get an accurate look at a man whose fame was also his tragedy. I’m not here to pitch books, not even my own, but Gene Smith’s Elvis’s Man Friday is an important volume for anyone who wants to understand the kind of human being–not what kind of celebrity, star, big-spending media king, but what kind of human being–Mr. Presley was, what shaped him to be the thing he was, and the complex subject that has brought us together.
Yes, Elvis Presley was a redneck because he sprang from the poor, white, rural, working class of the South. But no matter what Albert Goldman and other writers might say, being of the poor, rural, working class of the South did not make Mr. Presley a bigot.
I believe that the nation stands where it is today, neither integrated nor united but moving more and more in the direction the Kerner Report predicted; two nations, separate and unequal, precisely because the rednecks, the poor, white, rural, working class of the South, and now the nation, have never been a party to any truce that has been drawn. The poor whites have seen government try to make peace between various warring factions but they have not been brought to the bargaining table. A truce, for example, between the larger society and organized labor. The carnage in the automobile factories of Detroit and the coal mines of Kentucky ceased when the laborers were strong enough to fight back and affect a truce. But when efforts were made to organize the rural poor working class, for example, as in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in the 1930s and 40s, organized labor, industry and government backed away and the redneck was left, yet again, “… stolid and stunned, A brother to the ox.” But the poet was mistaken when he described the man with the hoe as “. . . dead to rapture and despair, A thing that grieves not and never hopes.” He is capable of deep grief and robust hope. There was notable hope in that effort, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Here was real, authentic racial integration for the first time, from the highest leadership to the rank and file, perhaps the most valiant effort of poor white and poor black rural folk banding and bonding in American history. In Mississippi. In Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama. The most poor, rural, working class, the most redneck part of America. It is not surprising that the powers that be feared and stifled that movement. It was too much of, “we hold these truths to be self-evident…” It was fomenting social, cultural, and political revolution. Rednecks and African Americans were moving out of serfdom by the alignment. It was black and white together, working, socializing, overcoming; tenant farmers and sharecroppers breaking bread and breaking shackles. It could not be. And it wasn’t. But what a story while it was. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union. A revolt that failed. If you would understand the social and historical significance of the life and times of Elvis Presley I urge you to take a look at the bold but short-lived Southern Tenant Farmers Union.
The so-called redneck saw a truce being drawn between African-Americans and middle and upper class whites as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. But the redneck, the poor, white, rural, working class of the South and now the nation were never a party to that truce. They soon said the War on Poverty was not for them. They spoke the truth. It wasn’t. It was to affect a truce to which they were not a party. And consequently it was an uneasy truce, and did not last.
What finally shall we say of our redneck brothers and sisters? I hope you do not hear me simply romanticizing my redneck people. I am quite aware of our sins and failures. I know that many poor, rural, working class Southerners joined the Klan, burned churches, lynched, beat little children with trace chains. I know it well. The question, the only question, is where did the poor, rural, working class get the notion that being white meant superiority? To whose advantage was that notion? The answers to those questions are not simplistic. But one thing is clear. Certainly it was not to the advantage of the poor, white, rural working class. The only thing to their advantage would have been a federation of the poor of both races. And when that federation was attempted, for example in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, it was quickly suppressed.
Today in this state people who committed racial crimes thirty years ago are being retried and convicted. The rationale is that we were living in a police state in the sixties and justice in the courts was impossible at the time. I do not argue that we were under a police state. Very well. A police state has someone at the head, someone running it. Why, then, are the governors and senators and congressmen who ranted and raved and preached hatred and defiance from the highest seats of government–why are they not being tried instead of the little people who, after all, were doing precisely what they thought, and yes knew, they were being asked to do? Acts that would be applauded. When will Governor Barnett be tried for high crimes and misdemeanors and sentenced posthumously for his crimes? Inciting a riot is against the law. Open defiance of a Supreme Court decree is a crime. It was he whose fulminations turned this very campus into a war zone on the night of September 30, 1962 when the first black student appeared. And yes, there were rednecks here. But at whose bidding? You don’t try the foot soldiers for war crimes. You try the rulers. There comes a time.
What I am trying to say is that the so-called redneck is a crucial factor to the social problem of race\poverty. And unless they are brought into the dialogue, a party to the truce, instead of being ridiculed, blamed, and scorned, there will be no truce. I am also trying to say that the redneck, even in this post-industrial, technological age, has hung onto a scrap of individualism, and thus offers hope of deliverance from the technological concentration camp we have built. That individualism was well exemplified in the life and music and times of Elvis Presley. President Jimmy Carter put it well at the time of Mr. Presley’s death when he said “…he was a symbol to the people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of this country.” I am trying further to say that in this vitality, this rebelliousness, this commitment, this dogged determinism, this recalcitrant, complaining, murmuring, seething hostility and seeming helplessness in the face of political and social exploitation, there may yet emerge deliverance from that body of death in the race/poverty which stalks and haunts and infects our land and is getting worse with every national election. If not, not, and death’s shroud will blanket us all.
What form the potential deliverance will take I have no notion. And I know, of course, the greater danger is that it will be no deliverance at all, but instead the continued exploitation, whether through fun-poking, religious fraud, or political machinations, will result in a fascist theocracy. That, certainly, is the direction in which we are moving. If you doubt that just watch every serious contender for high office during the coming year rush to the TV studios seeking the blessing of the right-wing electronic soul molesters who hurl to hearth and household, not the radical and revolutionary message of Jesus regarding the downcast, but rather a milquetoast gospel of, “Take up your cross and relax.” “Take up your cross and get rich.” “Take up your cross and find self-esteem in an edifice made of glass.” Great Godamighty! I don’t know where this country is headed. But there comes a time to fret. There comes a time.
So I will leave you with the words of the poet, reminding you that when he used the word dumb it meant silent, not stupid.
How will the future reckon with this man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdom and with kings,
With those who shaped him to the thing he is,
When this dumb terror shall rise to judge the world?
And judge it, my brothers and sisters, he will. The age of Elvis, I believe, with all its shaking, its gyrations, its vitality, rebelliousness, dogged determination, songs of murmuring, sometimes seething hostility and recalcitrance, but mounting finally to the screaming, thunderous crescendo in “How Great Thou Art!” tried to warn us of the judgment to come. The Lord works in strange, in mysterious ways.