Among the many artists who are at the center of the Rock and Roll story, only the Beatles share Elvis’s stature. Elvis Presley was the young man who helped turn Rock and Roll’s quiet beginnings into something that shook mainstream America’s foundation stones. Not that he meant to. Rock and Roll was never something that any one individual planned. And in the the case of Elvis, he was just following his instincts.

In this chapter, lessons will not simply explore Elvis’s music and the cultural changes it brought on, they will consider Elvis as a loaded symbol, and one with various meanings attached. What happened for Elvis — his transformation from a working-class kid into a Rock and Roll star — would come to represent a kind of fantasy experience associated with Rock and Roll. Rock and Roll, his example suggests, is one way a young person from the margins can change his or her whole world. Because of Elvis, and others who hit the jackpot after him, popular music appeared to be the place where the American Dream might just be possible. The image of the Rock and Roll star comes to hinge on this radical, particularly American transformation.

But Elvis will always be more than his stardom and what that stardom did for him and to him. Elvis is also one among the early Rock and Rollers who very conspicuously mixed black and white traditions, his first single a tribute to his interests. Released in the very year that Brown vs. Board of Education attempted to desegregate schools, Elvis’s first Sun Records single pointed toward a future in which black and white America might find new ways to intermingle. On one side of that single Elvis covered Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” on the other Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” One track was from a Blues and R&B tradition, the other from Bluegrass. Like other American kids, Elvis didn’t make much of a distinction. The world was about to change.

Race wasn’t the only area in which Elvis helped set off changes: he was arguably the early Rock and Roll artist who did the most to make the body — in his case a seemingly uncontrolled one — a part of the show. Making parents everywhere uncomfortable, Elvis gave something to the music that was unambiguously exciting. There would be no turning back.

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Rock and Roll and the American Dream

What is the American Dream and how did Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash personify its ideals?