It is hard to believe that once upon a time, America was derided as a place that could not export its culture, and succeeded only in producing cheap imitations of art forms and products that Europeans believed that they had perfected. By the 1940s, however, Joseph Stalin was moved to say that ‘the weapons America uses are nylon stockings, and coca cola.’ Innovation did indeed become the means by which the USA accelerated its economic development and propelled itself into the first rank of nations.
In the first half of the twentieth century, a contiguous development, spurred by the emergence of new recording technologies, took place in the field of the arts. Music and film, and that of American origin in particular, became the fastest growing phenomenon in culture.
What is most surprising about America’s many musical revolutions in this period is that they took place in a relatively small, poor and segregated part of the country, the Deep South. From New Orleans, Louisiana, came jazz, from Memphis, Tennessee, first rhythm and blues and later rock ‘n’ roll. Certainly, there was sufficient variety already in the South with the importing of Africans for slavery and the spread of European people to provide for these unique developments, but the creativity of people with little other formal education or training, let alone what we might call means, still boggles the mind.
Much of the Mississippi Delta was purchased by the still infant United States from France during the Napoleonic Wars and was subsequently divided into separate States. The area was still ripe for colonisation, and its fertile climate ensured the survival of the plantation economy that made a slave-driven economy attractive to producers of king cotton. Just as the confluence of an old people and a new landscape created the Wild Westerner, so too did the Southerner begin to emerge once new territories opened up to less aristocratic and less fixed populations.
Perhaps the greatest mix was amongst existing and imported slaves, which produced the Cajun cuisine (spicy seafood, fried chicken and so on) and music of New Orleans. In the setting of a French city, with wrought and cast iron façades to the nicest houses in town, café au lait and donuts (beignets), a remarkable and unique American melting pot can now be sampled. Then came jazz, born of the brothels and Congo Square (the one meeting place for blacks in the City, and now part of Louis Armstrong Park). In a town as hot and humid as New Orleans, it seems almost perverse that music should possess so much vibrancy, but therein lies the rub.
The City of Memphis, five hundred miles up the Mississippi River in Tennessee, might seem in few ways comparable to New Orleans, but it too was the birthplace of a new form of music. Surprisingly enough, the catalysts were two men; Sam Phillips, who opened the Memphis Recording Services and later the Sun Record Label, and Elvis Presley. Phillips had already unearthed Howlin’ Wolf, BB King and Ike Turner when the 19-year old Elvis said he wanted to make a record for his ma’s birthday, so John Lennon’s famous statement that ‘before Elvis there was nothing’ is, like much about Lennon, a half-truth. Nonetheless, as the kid said, he ‘didn’t sound like nobody.’ After a year of ignoring Elvis, followed by hours of dull sessions on gospel tunes, Phillips heard something in a cover of ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ that millions have since considered revolutionary. (Note: Sun Records was also the starting place for an incredible collection of musicians, including Jonny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and the Beatles’ favourite, Carl Perkins).
For someone who never performed live outside of North America, Elvis’ reach is second only to the Beatles, and even that is questionable. Much could be said about it, but his significance to America is more interesting. For one thing, his love of and frequent returns to Las Vegas cemented its establishment as a successful tourist destination. A more important area in which he broke boundaries was in race relations. Though some Black musicians considered Presley a thief of their sound, he undoubtedly popularised a style of music that Black musicians were able to promote, opening a market and a cause for sympathy from the rest of the world. If that sounds peculiar, imagine how much smaller would have been the interest in the Civil Rights Movement had a generation not grown up listening to songs by the same group of people.
Elvis hardly performed live between his enlistment for military service in 1958 and his comeback in 1968. What time he didn’t spend in Germany as a reserve, he spent mostly in Memphis, improving his mansion, Graceland, recording and filming. Graceland is now a museum, a strange product of small-town American mores, where his parents also lived permanently, and financial largesse. Nervous though he certainly was of going back in front of an audience (the Beatles had already stopped touring by this point), Elvis’ renaissance came at the end of a year when America had seen social unrest, the assassinations of the leading non-violent Civil Rights leader and arguable front-runner for the presidency and military losses on a huge scale in Vietnam. Elvis specifically chose ‘If I Can Dream’ as his set-closer in honour of Robert Kennedy for his televised comeback special, perhaps no more than a token, given what the country had lost, but a decent measure of a man who gave as much as he consumed.
Elvis’ pride in Memphis, where he lived from the age pf about eight, would have made the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior at the city’s Lorraine Motel all the more repulsive to him. King had been in town to support black municipal waste workers in their effort to form a union and achieve recognition and equal treatment as part of the movement he had unofficially led since the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1961. On April 3, he gave his ‘Mountaintop’ speech, in which he declared that, collectively, the black race in America had the ninth largest GDP in the world, and that the promised land was in reach. It was, and is, one of the most eloquent and moving articles of faith in human progress ever recorded. On April 4, James Earl Ray shot King on the balcony of the motel, possibly for money.
The museum that now sits on the site of King’s murder is the national museum of the Civil Rights Movement, and its size befits the enormity and complexity of its subject. Just as the issue of slavery in the 1860s had made the country ungovernable, so Lincoln’s dictum that ‘this Nation cannot exist half-slave and half-free’ proved correct in the 1960s. Many of the same battles continued to be fought, in particular the right of the States to nullify the acts of the Federal Government without breaking the constitutional bond. Troops were removed from the South some ten years after the Civil War ended, leaving Blacks with few or no practical rights, and it was not until they returned under the orders of President Eisenhower and Attorney-General Robert Kennedy that the 1954 decision in Brown v Board of Education, that as separate education could not be considered equal, segregation would have to be practically abolished, could be enforced.
In the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Civil Rights Voting Act, a point of principle that he noted to an aide at the time would cost the Democratic Party the South for a generation. The alternative might have been worse, for the riots that followed King’s death in 1968 might have tipped a remarkably non-violent protest movement into the confrontation that South Africa subsequently endured. A recent radio programme called ‘The Night James Brown Saved Boston’ details the efforts made by Boston’s Mayor to persuade the Godfather of Soul not only to play an extra concert that night, but to broadcast it on all the major radio networks to keep people indoors during the riots that hit the rest of the country. Being a businessman, Brown held out for an outrageous deal, before going on stage and not only playing a great show but eulogising King multiple times on stage.
Today Memphis is not rich, but tourism brings in a steady buck. Beale Street contains most of the blues clubs, where white folks sit inside, and Blacks almost exclusively watch from outside or on one of the two ‘patios’. In a strange coincidence, the town is home to the church of the Reverend Al Green, the soul-singer turned pastor who once allegedly declared ‘if everyone else is making love to Al Green’s music, why shouldn’t I?’
The situation in New Orleans is more awkward still. Tourism brings in greater amounts, Federal construction funds are flowing in and the City will host the Superbowl in 2013, four years after the Saints’ miraculous Championship season. The damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina is evident nonetheless. The City has halved in population, the ninth ward is still a wasteland and many musicians have moved away, so that neither of the two main jazz spots on Bourbon Street showcase Black jazz bands. There are still stories in the local paper about corruption interposing between the Federal Government and the people who do want to return. Just as with foreign aid, America’s extended and hived-off form of government means that aid is not always well spent. Small wonder then, that suspicion of government is still rife.
Race is still a live issue in America. An unusually high turnout amongst Blacks aided President Obama in his election and may be needed in 2012 if he is to win a second term. The Republicans may see reasons to court the White vote now, but Whites may be a minority in the USA within the next forty years. In New York City, forty-five per cent of the population were born outside the United States. So toying with the idea of making presidential candidates publish their birth certificates, as Donald Trump and some other Republicans are doing, seems not only disrespectful, but cynical and perhaps counter-productive in the long term. So far, the view is that when the Tea Party has focussed the minds of Americans on fiscal issues, it has been more successful than when it has not. In the attritional war over the budget a few weeks ago and the deficit in the medium term, President Obama is not coming out covered in glory, but that does not stop some Republicans playing dirty tricks (particularly as the primary system is currently encouraging potential candidates to run against the moderate Mitt Romney, who as The Onion puts it, is currently trying to explain why he felt that it was a good idea to help poor people get healthcare while Governor of Massachusetts).
Despite its tortured history, the South still has the capacity to charm. The climate may be hot and humid enough already, but the countryside’s beauty, aided by the surviving plantations and by the tributaries of the Mississippi and the Bayou, make it seem worth enduring. People are friendly, White or Black, with many wishing us a ‘Happy Easter’ or welcoming us to the United States. But the music that New Orleans and Memphis are both famous for, and which have inspired so many of the bands that we are familiar with in our own country, make these places more thrilling than they would otherwise be. Had the Rolling Stones never met, had Paul Simon not named his revolutionary album after Graceland and had Elvis never done everything before anyone did anything, would we even be visiting? America is both ordinary and extraordinary in the same beat.