Elvis Presley and the History
of White Trash in America

The legend of Elvis Presley has often been portrayed as an ideal example of the “American Dream,” that promise dating back to the nation’s founding that, through hard work and perseverance, everyone has the opportunity to go from rags to riches. In her 2016 New York Times bestselling book, however, Nancy Isenberg, a professor of American History at Louisiana State University, suggests a counter interpretation of Presley’s life story. First, a warning … Elvis fans may find her analysis troublesome, and that includes me. However, the historian side of me can see some legitimacy in her well-supported analysis.

The author’s basic premise in “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” is that the United States has always had a social class structure and that upward mobility in it is an illusive prospect resisted by the higher classes. To Isenberg, Elvis Presley’s rise from sharecropper’s son to “King of Rock ’n’ roll” was a freakish occurrence in American history, not an example of what is possible for all in a “classless” society. 

As its subtitle indicates, Elvis plays only a small part in the 400-year history of “White Trash” in America. Most of what the author has to say about Elvis is confined to a single chapter, titled, “The Cult of the Country Boy.” The chapter starts with a quote from Elvis in 1956: “I’m a self-confessed raw country boy and guitar-playing fool.” Impoverished Southern whites then didn’t call themselves “white trash,” of course. That disparaging description circulated among higher social classes. In addition to “country” folk, “hillbillies” was another common label for poor whites in mid-20th century America.  “Hillbillies were seen as cruel and violent,” Isenberg notes, “but with most of their anger directed at neighbors, family members, and ‘furriners.’” The author explained how the term applied to Elvis.

“In the early years, Elvis’s musical style was seen as a mixture between hillbilly singing and rhythm and blues … The real Elvis was not a hillbilly at all. He was a poor white boy from Tupelo, Mississippi. He was the son of a sharecropper. He was born into poverty in a shotgun shack situated in the wrong part of town. Yet when he put a guitar in his hand and millions ogled at his frenzied (some thought violent) dance moves, he was at once seen as defying middle-class norms and behaving as a sort of hillbilly—will suited to his new home of Tennessee. A friend of his confirmed the hillbilly image when he remarked to a reporter in 1956 that all Elvis had to do was ‘jes’ show hisself and the gals git to thrashin’ round and pantin’ like mountain mules.’”

• From freakish rural outcast to Hillbilly Cat

Even though Elvis was not a real hillbilly, a tinge of “white trashiness” added to his appeal as he soared to the top, according to Isenberg. It drew the adolescent children of America’s working class to him. As he rose to fame, he “achieved what no white trash working-class male had ever dreamt possible,” the author declared. “He was at once cool and sexually transgressive and a ‘country boy.’ No longer a freakish rural outcast, as in the past, Elvis was a ‘Hillbilly Cat,’ someone many teenage boys wished they could be.” 

In the 1950s, Elvis crossed the boundaries between black and white society, something Isenberg says was only possible because he came from the “lower ranks of southern society.” The year 1957 was an explosive one for Elvis’s career and for race relations in the U.S. While Americans watched a group of black teenagers challenge racial school segregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, Elvis was blurring the lines between white and black music.

When Elvis’s fans crowned him the “King of rock ’n’ roll,” one journalist called it the “Elvis principle.” Americans don’t have real kings, but they like to look up to “rags to riches” monarchs. “The kind of kings Americans looked up to were men with a hard-to-explain sex appeal and a gentle hubris,” says Isenberg. She points to the mass popularity of JFK, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton as later examples of the “Elvis principle.”

Elvis’s rise to fame, of course, was fought every step of the way by the white establishment in America. Journalists condemned his crude sexual antics on stage and pointed out how he butchered the English language. One writer gleefully reported that Elvis couldn’t answer questions put to him about current events. Isenberg relates how in 1958 best-selling author Vance Packard testified before a Senate Communications committee that Elvis’s style of “mountain music was polluting the national taste.” Even Elvis’s income was criticized as obscene.

“Arkansas senator William Fulbright … complained that Elvis symbolized the class hierarchy turned upside down: ‘the King’ earned more than the president. George McGovern of South Dakota was disturbed that Elvis earned more than the combined annual salaries of all the faculty members at the average university. And for what? The New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther lashed out: 'grotesque singing' and 'orgiastic' leg shaking.”

• The Elvis-Beverly Hillbillies Connection

Isenberg blames white TV executives in the fifties for fostering the worst kind of poor white stereotypes in what she calls “hick sitcoms.” Some examples were The Andy Griffith ShowGomer Pyle, USMC; and The Beverly Hillbillies. The author suggests a comparison between the latter series and Elvis Presley’s life. The Clampetts struck it rich and moved into a mansion in Hollywood, but “they had not moved even one rung on the social latter. They didn’t even try to behave like middle-class Americans.” Writing in the LA Times, Hal Humphrey observed that “the show’s creator had come up with a formula that camouflaged class conflicts with laughs.” 

Although not anywhere near as extreme an example, Elvis’s sudden upward mobility in 1956-57 could be seen the same way. Sudden riches and fame enabled him to move into a mansion in Memphis, but it didn’t make him any more acceptable to the white upper class. Hollywood, for instance, certainly took advantage of his “hick” past.

When Hal Wallis searched for a vehicle for Elvis’s first film for Paramount, he thought it best to initially cast Presley as a “‘gosh-darn’ hayseed character, for which Elvis’s natural drawl would be perfect.” So Elvis wound up as a hot-headed plough-boy in Love Me Tenderrather than with Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn in The Rainmaker. Elvis didn’t help matters by lowering expectations for himself. “Mr. Wallis asked me what kind of a part I’d like, and I told him one more like myself, so I wouldn’t have to do any excess actin’.”

So Hollywood treated Elvis Presley like the “raw country boy” he professed to be. He became an angry, young redneck in Loving YouJailhouse Rock, and King Creole. Later there were straight hillbilly roles in films like Follow That Dream and Kissin’ Cousins. His occasional flashes of brilliance on film were never followed up, and studio execs steered his career downward until he was considered a bit of a joke in Hollywood.

• Did his country-boy image haunt Elvis?

Worst of all, though, is that Elvis Presley, despite his fame and wealth, may have been haunted his whole adult life by the country-boy image of his youth. If so, he certainly tried to disguise it. After he hit the big time, he never again wore jeans, a reminder of the years when that’s all he had to wear. He gave to charities and individuals, perhaps psychologically soothing the pain of his family having to accept charity when he was young.

The most striking example of how uncomfortable Elvis Presley felt in the presence of upper class society came on January 16, 1971, when the National Junior Chambers of Commerce honored him as one of the “Outstanding Young Men of the Year.” His acceptance speech that night in Memphis lasted only 43 stressful, stuttering, mistake-filled seconds. It was as if Elvis felt unworthy, that he had no right to be in the same room with such esteemed, well-bred people.

Nancy Isenberg’s analysis of Elvis Presley’s rags-to-riches is no doubt unsettling for most of his fans, who would much rather remember him only for his music, his best films, and his powerful stage presence. But there has to be a reason why he surrounded himself with good ol’ boys, guns, and drugs. Maybe Isenberg is on to something. Perhaps neither he nor America’s class structure could forget or forgive where he came from. If so, it’s not something Elvis fans care to dwell upon for very long, not when he left so much of his music for all classes of Americans to enjoy. — Alan Hanson | © June 2017.

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"He was born into poverty in a shotgun shack situated in the wrong part of town. Yet when he put a guitar in his hand and millions ogled at his frenzied (some thought violent) dance moves, he was at once seen as defying middle-class norms and behaving as a sort of hillbilly."