Happy 75th Birthday, Elvis! Your Legacy Is The Music Of Modern America
Born January 8, 1935
I want us to think about Elvis Presley as many things: but for our own moment it might be most relevant to think of what he taught about creating hybrids, combining seemingly distinct strains of music into a seamless new whole. It is second nature to us now: for all of us who live in the culture where the word mash-up has come to have endless connotations in- and outside the world of music. But Elvis was a pioneer here–offering up rockabilly versions of blues songs, breakneck speed rock and roll versions of already hyper-driven bluegrass songs, bel canto style vocals grafted onto cheesy pop ballads. His musical integration moves–not coincidentally hitting the air at the same moment that the Supreme Court was ordering school desegregation–are a part of our musical DNA now. It is not that white and Black, North and South and new and old had not been combined in music before–of course they had. But where the earlier modes of this combining had been dogged by the old shame of minstrels (and remember that Elvis’s contemporaries Jerry Lee Lewis and Jackie Wilson adored the blackface stylings of Al Jolson), the hybrid strains devised by Elvis felt radically new: the music of modern America.
Jeffrey Melnick, Associate Professor of American Studies