The American Dream—the idea that every person who calls him or herself an American has the opportunity to achieve a better life, to find a voice within the structure of the “nation,” to rise—is a concept that deeply permeates our American identity.
The American Dream is an essential part of the national lore used to explain what it means to be a citizen of the United States. The story is everywhere: The well-known biography of Abraham Lincoln begins in a Kentucky log cabin and ends in the White House. Horatio Alger Jr.’s nineteenth-century novels depict characters rising from rags to riches, as achieved through honest work, courage, and perseverance. In the 1930s, novelist John Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men, in which the protagonists, migrant laborers George and Lennie, maintain their dream of owning a farm even as they face brutal poverty and economic disenfranchisement.
Just as Lincoln, Alger, and Steinbeck offered different views into the very concept of the American Dream, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash participated in updating the story for the Rock and Roll era, rising from working class beginnings to become legends in American life and culture.
In the eyes of his fans, Elvis didn’t simply live the American Dream; he embodied it. He was born at home in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi in the midst of the Great Depression. The family later moved to Memphis, where they lived in a series of rented rooms and a public housing project while Elvis attended high school. All members of the Presley family worked several jobs, including Elvis, who worked as a machinist and drove a truck. Even in his earliest interviews, Elvis would say that all he wanted to do was to make enough money to buy his parents a house of their own, reminding his audience of his roots in the working class and just how far he’d risen.
By the spring of 1957, barely three years after recording “That’s All Right,” his first single for Sun Records, Elvis had already become a Pop superstar, both as a musician and a Hollywood actor. It was that year when he purchased Graceland, a mansion in the Memphis suburbs. In the twenty years the Presley family lived in the home, the name “Graceland” became nearly interchangeable with Elvis himself, a symbol of the singer’s meteoric rise to fame and the possibility of a real “American Dream” coming true. Upon his death in 1977, Graceland became a spiritual mecca for music fans from all over the world looking to pay homage to the always larger-than-life King of Rock and Roll.
The American Dream story of Johnny Cash shares some similarities to the Elvis narrative, but with several key differences in the way Cash related to his audience and displayed his arrival. Born in Arkansas three years before Elvis, Cash was one of seven children. He grew up in a federal agricultural resettlement community, part of FDR’s New Deal, where the Cash family lived in a modest house and farmed the surrounding cotton fields. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Cash worked in a Memphis appliance store. He first auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in 1954, not long after Elvis recorded his first songs on the same label.
While both musicians enjoyed remarkable success, Elvis and Cash ultimately adopted very different public identities. Elvis became a teen idol like the world had never seen, releasing pop records and starring in movies, while Cash cultivated an adult-oriented Country audience and wrote songs to suit his self-made “outlaw” image, including “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” Elvis stood out from the crowd by wearing long sideburns and dressing in flamboyant colors and materials. Cash became known as the “Man in Black,” a reference to his dark and somber suits, which reflected his desire to memorialize those downtrodden people who had not shared in his success but who were, in some way, his brothers and sisters. While Elvis established a musical residency in Las Vegas, where several of Elvis’ own show business idols had performed, Cash strayed from his busy touring schedule to play free shows for inmates at Folsom and San Quentin State Prisons.
The exceptional lives of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash are pivotal tales that became representations of the American Dream, demonstrating the ability of Rock and Roll culture to transport a person from the margins of society to a place of power, wealth, and universal recognition, where their voices cut through the clutter of modern life.
In this lesson, students will explore the persistence of the American Dream by juxtaposing the writings of Horatio Alger Jr. and John Steinbeck with the artistic output of Elvis and Cash. If the American Dream as an ideology has always been a balance between myth and reality, these artists, and Rock and Roll culture more generally, gave the myth something real. Through a survey of literature, album art, songs, television news reports, film, and other materials, students will examine how these artists became symbols of the American Dream for their many fans.