One of the songs Elvis Presley liked to perform in the '70s was Joe South's Walk a Mile in My Shoes, its message clearly spelled out in the title.
Sometimes he would preface it with the 1951 Hank Williams recitation Men With Broken Hearts.
For Elvis these two songs were as much about social justice as empathy and understanding: "Help your brother along the road," the Hank Williams number concluded, "No matter where you start/For the God that made you made them, too/These men with broken hearts."
In Elvis' case, this simple lesson was not just a matter of paying lip service to an abstract principle.
It was what he believed, it was what his music had stood for from the start: the breakdown of barriers, both musical and racial. This is not, unfortunately, how it is always perceived 30 years after his death, the anniversary of which was Thursday. When the singer Mary J. Blige expressed her reservations about performing one of his signature songs, she only gave voice to a view common in the African-American community. "I prayed about it," she said, "because I know Elvis was a racist."
And yet, as the legendary Billboard editor Paul Ackerman, a devotee of English Romantic poetry as well as rock 'n' roll, never tired of pointing out, the music represented not just an amalgam of America's folk traditions (blues, gospel, country) but a bold restatement of an egalitarian ideal. "In one aspect of America's cultural life," Ackerman wrote in 1958, "integration has already taken place."
It was due to rock 'n' roll, he emphasized, that groundbreaking artists like Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, who would only recently have been confined to the "race" market, had acquired a broad-based pop following, while the music itself blossomed neither as a regional nor a racial phenomenon but as a joyful new synthesis "rich with Negro and hillbilly lore."
No one could have embraced Paul Ackerman's formulation more forcefully than Elvis Presley.
Asked to characterize his style when he first presented himself for an audition at the Sun recording studio in Memphis, Elvis said that he sang all kinds of music - "I don't sound like nobody." It was as succinct a definition as one might get of the democratic vision that fueled his music, a vision that denied distinctions of race, of class, of category, that embraced every kind of music equally.
It was, of course, in his embrace of black music that Elvis came in for his fiercest criticism. On one day alone, Ackerman wrote, he received calls from two Nashville music executives demanding in the strongest possible terms that Billboard stop listing Elvis' records on the bestselling country chart because he played black music.
Elvis was something of a hero in the black community in those early years. In Memphis the two African-American newspapers, the Memphis World and the Tri-State Defender, hailed him as a "race man" - not just for his music but also for his indifference to the usual social distinctions. In the summer of 1956, the World reported, he "cracked Memphis' segregation laws" by attending an amusement park on "colored night."
That same year, Elvis also attended the otherwise segregated WDIA Goodwill Revue, an annual charity show put on by the radio station that called itself the "Mother Station of the Negroes."
Just how committed he was to a view that insisted not just on musical accomplishment but fundamental humanity can be deduced from his reaction to an ugly rumor that has persisted to this day. Elvis Presley, it was said increasingly within the African-American community, had declared, either at a personal appearance in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person television program, "The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes."
That he had never appeared in Boston or on Murrow's program did nothing to abate the rumor, and so in June 1957, long after he had stopped talking to the mainstream press, he addressed the issue - and an audience that scarcely figured in his sales demographic - in an interview for the black weekly Jet. Anyone who knew him, he told reporter Louie Robinson, would immediately recognize that he could never have uttered those words. The interview's underlying point: Far from asserting any superiority, he was merely doing his best to find a place in a musical continuum.
"Let's face it," he said of his rhythm and blues influences, "nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. I can't sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that." And as for prejudice, the article concluded, quoting an unnamed source, "To Elvis people are people, regardless of race, color or creed."
So why didn't the rumor die? Why did it continue to find common acceptance up to, and past, the point that Chuck D of Public Enemy could declare in 1990, "Elvis was a hero to most ... straight-up racist that sucker was, simple and plain"?
Chuck D has long since repudiated that view for a more nuanced one, but the reason for the rumor's durability, the unassailable logic behind its common acceptance within the black community rests quite simply on the social inequities that have persisted to this day, the fact that we live in a society that is no more perfectly democratic today than it was 50 years ago. As Chuck D perceptively observes, what does it mean, within this context, for Elvis to be hailed as "king," if Elvis' enthronement obscures the striving, the aspirations and achievements of so many others who provided him with inspiration?
Elvis would have agreed. No one should be called king; the music, the American musical tradition that Elvis embraced, could stand on its own, after crossing all borders of race, class and even nationality. To do justice to the spirit of the music, we have to extend ourselves beyond the narrow confines of our own experience, we have to challenge ourselves to embrace the democratic principle of the music itself, which may in the end be its most precious gift.
Peter Guralnick is author of Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.