Day Four: I Have Seen the King

Elvis&ChrisPart nine in a series

I’m not going to pretend to make a Civil War connection between Elvis Presley and the Civil War. We’re passing through Tupelo, Mississippi, on our way from Vicksburg to Corinth, so I’m stopping at the Elvis Presley Birthplace. There’s no Civil War about it.

Although I do like some of Elvis’s music, I’m not a die-hard fan; however, I am a die-hard fan of the Elvis phenomenon. It’s hard to overstate the impact he had on pop culture in his time, and over the course of his career, he continued to evolve in ways that made him relevant and, ultimate, larger than life. WAY larger than life.

He became a phenomenon.

And, unfortunately, he also became a caricature of himself, too. That, also, makes it hard to see how much of an impact he had.

Elvis-BirthplaceThe King of Rock and Roll was born in a two-room home on the wrong side of town in Tupelo on January 8, 1935. “He did not have much potential,” one of the docents says, “and yet he went on to have such a career.”

The home still stands, making up the centerpiece of the Elvis Birthplace, which sits along Elvis Presley Drive. There’s also a statue of 13-year-old Elvis, a museum highlighting Elvis’s youth and early influences, a memorial chapel (which was closed because of water damage), and Elvis’s childhood church.

The church—the Assembly of God Pentecostal Church—was originally located several blocks away. For forty years, a family lived in it as a two-bedroom home, but in 2008, the birthplace purchased it and moved it to the birthplace property in 2008.

Elvis-ChapelInterior“It was here that Elvis was first exposed to the rich, Southern gospel that became a staple of his musical repertoire,” the park says. That’s a theme we hear several times: Elvis was a good church-going lad who always stayed in tune with his gospel roots. “He got away from church when his career took off, and he didn’t have time,” one docent explains apologetically.

We sit in the back pew of the simple wooden structure, and when the program begins, giant screens materialize from the ceiling along both walls and the front of the room. Suddenly, it’s like we’re in the middle of a Pentecostal service. The idea is to submerge visitors just along to give them a taste of the environment that nurtured Elvis’s earliest musical inclinations.

As the credits roll, a rendition of Elvis’s gospel song “Working on the Building” plays as images of the chapel’s reconstruction and relocation fill the screen. Great selection, I think.

In an odd juxtaposition, outside the chapel is a reproduction outhouse similar to the one that sat on the property once upon a time. “The King’s throne!” I say, delighted.

The Presley’s house ran on oil lamps and a wood stove, although it was wired for electricity. The family was too poor—especially when Vernon Presley served an 8-month prison sentence for forging a check.

Elvis-BirthRoomThe front room of the birthplace featured the bed, a fireplace, and a few other bits of furniture. A docent sits on a chair next to the bed and tells stories of Elvis. She knew the King since childhood, she said, and talked with him fairly regularly until about 1971 or so. She still speaks of him fondly, spinning yarns of his humility, his generosity, his gospel roots, his devotion to his mother.

“He did everything he did because he had a goal to make sure his mother never wanted for anything,” the docent tells us. “He fulfilled that goal and more.”

Outside, I get my picture taken with the Elvis statue. I am unabashedly thrilled to be there.

Signs on the property commemorate Elvis’s influence on country music and the influence of the blues on him. The museum points out that, Elvis’s only Grammys were for his gospel music. “Most of his fans favor his gospel music,” a docent tells us. “That’s because he did.” Oddly, nothing commemorates his standing as the King of Rock and Roll.

As I leave, I think about the Elvis I got to spend time with today: a small-town boy who, through a mix of disparate influences and his own amazing talent, went on to great things. The hometown folks remain proud of that boy.

As a historian, I wonder how much of what I’ve heard today has been based on fact and how much has been based on myth-making? For instance, was Elvis really a good church-loving guy his whole life, or is that the way the seventy-something female fans of the Bible-belt want to remember him—and want us to remember him? Is it Elvis the Gospel Singer, not Elvis the King of Rock and Roll, that will be his enduring legacy?

ElvisJesusLeeSuddenly, I realize there is a Civil War parallel to all this. I’ve seen this kind of myth-making surround Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest. And it’s not just in the South. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Ulysses S. Grant are also myth-shrouded, good and bad.

Fact vs. fiction…story vs. history…truth vs. myth.

I love the myth of Elvis, so the myth-making is fascinating to me. But as a historian, I love poking holes in those sorts of myths. I recognize that there’s a contradiction in that. Hmmmmm….

Overall, I enjoy the stop immensely. The birthplace is a beautiful, park-like compound that’s first-class all the way. It’s intimate in just the right ways, yet it strikes a note that foreshadows all that Elvis will someday become once he moves away from Tupelo at age 14. The Elvis that stands here in the meantime will always be 13, with guitar in hand, approachable, ready, ready.

I am glad I got to meet him.

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