Thursday, January 8, 2009

Shake Rag

Today would have been Elvis Presley's 74th birthday, and much as his mother Gladys clings to a young Elvis in the photo above, hundreds of adoring Elvis fans are in Tupelo clinging to his memory and marking the occasion.

But that's not the only celebration going on today. Tupelo also gets it's second blues marker on the historical Mississippi blues trail. The first one was placed last year on this day at the Elvis Presley birthplace museum, noting Elvis' debt to and love for blues music. The second Tupelo marker also honors Elvis in a roundabout way. It's as 399 East Main St and commemorates the neighborhood of Shake Rag. Elvis and his family lived close to the segregated African American community for a very short time.

Elaine Dundy describes the community as a nice place to live in her biography "Elvis and Gladys."
"Living in Mulberry Alley and then moving to 1010 North Green Street, the Presleys were living on the edge of Tupelo's blacks section, Shakerag. This was a community of house servants, cooks, and nurses -- as well, if not better, off than the Presleys -- who worked for Tupelo's wealthier families. A self-contained, well-mannered community, they had their own stores and their own Sanctified Church, which was a tent with one side rolled up."
A submitted report in the Hatiesburg American gives a brief description of the musical history:
By the 1920s blues and jazz flowed freely from performers at Shake Rag restaurants, cafes, and house parties, and later from jukeboxes, while the sounds of gospel music filled the churches. The neighborhood was leveled and its residents relocated during an urban renewal project initiated in the late 1960s.
A far different, and far less flattering portrait is drawn from Albert Goldman's controversial biography of Elvis:

Though Elvis is always associated with Tupelo, he lived in the city less than three years. According to the Myth, those years were spent in a horrid black slum known by the pungently Dickensian name of Shakerag. Though the ordeal of living in a black slum is something every true fan is supposed to grieve over, at the same time -- by the paradox of felix culpa, the fortunate fall -- this descent to the depths is regarded as the source of Elvis's extraordinary mastery of the black musical idiom, to say nothing of all the jivey dance steps he cut. As always, the Myth is mistaken. Elvis did live in a slum, but it was not the notorious black slum in the northwest quarter of the city; it was on the east side of town on Commerce Street, where the shopping mall stands today. The family did not remain long at this address; they moved several times, their next house being in Mobile Alley a narrow lane that ran at right angles to the railroad tracks near the fairgrounds. Finally they wound up in the northeast quarter near the slaughterhouse on North Green Street. All of these neighborhoods were white, all were poor and ugly.
Goldman seems to take quite an interest in embarrassing Presley in his book, which was published after Presley's death. It was and remains roundly rejected by fans the world over as innaccurate. But there's no disputing that Presley and his family had hard times in Tupelo and left town under the threat of police action.

Goldman, of course, writes about how the Presleys left Tupelo:
In September 1948, the Presleys packed up their few belongings in a decrepit 1937 Plymouth and took off for Memphis. Elvis said in later years that they were broke and that Vernon was hoping to find a job in the big city. The move -- made abruptly after the school year had commenced and surrounded subsequently with a cloud of secrecy -- suggests some fresh misfortune was about to descend upon the family, which they averted by flight. The Tupelo police told the compilers of All About Elvis that Vernon Presley had been caught selling moonshine and was given two weeks to get out of town.
Despite what Goldman writes about Presley's ties to Tupelo being tenuous, Presley returned to Tupelo at the height of his new found fame in 1956 for his "Homecoming" concert then came back in 1957 for a second show. Both shows took place near his old house at the Fairgrounds. Elvis took more with him to Memphis than what he put in a box in the old Plymouth. He told a reporter for the Charlotte Observer in June, 1956, he took along a love of blues music.
"The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doin' now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and juke joints and nobody paid it no mind 'til I goose it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw."
Most, if not all, Elvis fans know that his first single on Sun records of course was "That's All Right, Mama" an Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup song, something he learned to love in Tupelo.

(Click to hear Elvis Presley sing That's All Right Mama)