Elvis Presley and the Perpetuation of a Myth

3 Dec

The other day, I mentioned that there was a semi-serious post floating in my brain. Today, I am going to get it out of there. A couple of weeks ago The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, printed an article about an activist who was going to be speaking in the area.

In the article, readers learned that the activist had a great deal of respect for Dolly Parton because of the singer’s work to improve the lives of children and others. They also learned that she had no respect for Elvis Presley, who she saw as someone who could have done more for his times and his community.Elvis Gate

That’s fine. We all have opinions about what people should and should not be doing. Many feel that the famous have a responsibility of using that fame for the betterment of the world. Dolly does a lot, and Elvis probably didn’t do enough. However, the writer continued with her disdain for Elvis by saying that he was racist. Her proof was that he had once said, “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”

When I read it, something in the back of my mind said that it wasn’t right. I couldn’t explain what was nagging at me, but I just didn’t think that was an accurate quote. That’s when I hit Google and was directed to Snopes. According the them, Elvis never made that statement and referenced Michael Bertrand as the historian who discovered where this urban legend began.

That’s when I knew where that nagging feeling was coming from. Dr. Bertrand teaches at Tennessee State University and spoke to the History Club at our university. He and I had a great conversation about the early years of Rock n’ Roll, but this information came from his presentation to the group. He tracked the origin of this tale to a magazine article in which an anonymous person on the street said that someone told them that Elvis had said that. Through the years, many people have heard it and taken it as fact.

Why am I writing about a long dead singer being misquoted in a newspaper? Because the newspaper and the activist being interviewed should know better. (Note: While working on this post, I discovered that the quote was taken out of the original article, and a follow-up article admitted to the falsehood of the quote.) It is one thing for misinformation to circulate, but people who are trained to research and write shouldn’t go with something they think might be true.

I am also writing about it because historians have to deal with this kind of misinformation all of the time. Surely, you have heard that Catherine the Great died while having sex with a horse. It’s not true, but everyone thinks it is. You have also heard that George Washington could not tell a lie. That probably made his espionage efforts during the Revolutionary War hard to manage. That’s despite being one of the best parts of his strategy.

It is hard to get to the reality of history. It is especially hard when people have misinformation about it already in their minds. All of this is made worse when a reputable newspaper interviews a reputable activist, and they spread the misinformation further.

She is probably correct. Elvis could have done more during his life to make the world better. Instead, he fell into a life of extravagance and drugs. There are many lessons to be learned from the Elvis story but adding wrong information only makes those lessons harder to learn.

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18 Responses to “Elvis Presley and the Perpetuation of a Myth”

  1. Teepee12 December 3, 2013 at 03:36 #

    It’s partly an internet rumor problem … people believe all kinds of weird crap they read on the internet. But it’s also that a certain level of blind stupid ignorance has become downright trendy — and it’s spreading. Hardly anyone bothers to check sources anymore. Pathetic.

    • Rick December 3, 2013 at 03:45 #

      Another issue is when we make up things to be concerned about it distracts us from the real problems.

  2. colemining December 3, 2013 at 03:43 #

    Unfortunately this is nothing new- Mary of Magdala wasn’t a prostitute, but try telling most people that little fact. Actual critical reading skills and the ability to fact check (assuming that the desire to have the facts straight is even present in any real way) are harder to find than ever. Instant access to information makes for a poor substitute to actually learning things…
    But then I’m just an old historian…

    • Rick December 3, 2013 at 03:47 #

      Everyone thinks she was a prostitute. Examples of these kinds of things can be found everywhere.

  3. jcalberta December 3, 2013 at 08:42 #

    I know Catherine was said to be … uhhh … promiscuous. But a horse? Never herd that one.

    Anyway, I’m not sure I would figure Elvis was a bad chap either, just because he didn’t opening champion any charities … etc. It’s possible he gave millions to charities and such, but didn’t advertise it. What do we really know ??

    • Rick December 3, 2013 at 13:42 #

      We don’t really know. Yeah, the Catherine story has been around since she died.

  4. DyingNote December 3, 2013 at 11:42 #

    Everybody throws up facts to support their pet theory and often those ‘facts’ are fabricated. Have you come across the terms ‘wikification’ or ‘truth by wiki’? If enough people say it, it becomes the truth. Our consumption of rumours and dramatic, spectacular misinformation has exploded in these recent years. It’s become even more difficult to get at the truth (often, of course, there’s no singular version). O tempora, o mores 🙂

    • Rick December 3, 2013 at 13:43 #

      I haven’t heard that, but it’s a new term for an old phenomenon. The Internet has made making false truth easier, though.

      • DyingNote December 4, 2013 at 05:48 #

        You even have paid social media services now to create these ‘facts’ to besmirch or halo people/products/services.

      • Rick December 4, 2013 at 15:09 #

        That’s something I did not know.

  5. satanicpanic December 4, 2013 at 01:17 #

    I’ve heard this one thrown around every now and then, which is surprising considering how easy it is to look this stuff up in this day and age. But I’ve always wondered- most legends like this get spread because they fill some cultural need for an explanation of something. What’s the point of spreading this rumor? Pinning the loss of jobs for black rock and rollers on Elvis? I guess since most of us don’t know the names of record and radio industry execs of the late 50’s (i.e. the people who killed rock and roll for everyone until the British Invasion). Elvis is dead so he can’t defend himself, which is a nice bonus. That’s the only logical reason I can think of.

    • Rick December 4, 2013 at 03:38 #

      I think it comes from the argument that Elvis stole his songs from black performers. That’s strange because he introduced them to a wider audience.

      • satanicpanic December 4, 2013 at 05:16 #

        I’m not an expert in that era by any means, but it seems like people ignore how much musicians were sharing back and forth during that time- across genre and color lines. That’s a real shame, because it’s a fascinating time to look back on. Hound Dog is a great example- Big Mama Thornton was the first person to have a hit, Elvis comes along and makes it a HUGE hit, so oooh Elvis stole it. BUT the song was written by two Jewish teens from Los Angeles, writing blues songs. Sounds like everybody wins.

      • Rick December 4, 2013 at 15:08 #

        I know about Big Mama Thornton, but I didn’t know about the writers. That’s interesting information.

  6. Lea December 4, 2013 at 21:43 #

    Thank you for investigation this information. I read the same article and felt burdened with the negative image the lady’s quote presented. I know several folks who worked for Elvis before his death and at Graceland, after he passed. I was embarrassed to ask them if they also had this negative feeling about him. I know that his daughter, Lisa, nowdays continually works to donate to multiple programs and social charities. I am not loyal at reading The Tennessean editorials, but I hope you had time to respond directly to the paper without offending the integrity of the lady who said this.

    • Rick December 5, 2013 at 02:58 #

      Thank you for reading my blog. I have not contacted the newspaper, but it seems that someone did. They ran a second article where they told the activist that the quote was inaccurate. She replied that it was something that she heard. That’s the problem. Reputable people repeat what they hear without verifying it.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. This Week A Year Ago on ISBAA : Elvis is Everywhere in Nashville | I see beauty all around by rob paine - August 16, 2014

    […] Elvis Presley and the Perpetuation of a Myth […]

  2. Happy Anniversary to Andrew and Elvis | Surrounded By Imbeciles - January 8, 2015

    […] Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, was born on this day in 1935. I have written about Elvis on a couple of occasions. My first concert was an Elvis show, and it was also the night that my mom got into a fight. Then, there was the weekend that my wife, my stepdaughter and I spent in Memphis. Heck, I even wrote about Elvis and the idea of myth. […]

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