Taylor Hagood: Cousin Elvis
I was dating a lady from Long Island. She was making her first ever trip to the South, proper, and after a day or two of measured acclimation for her in Ripley, Mississippi, I decided to take her to Memphis. As we started off, rolling past green cotton fields and winding up into hills ragged in the red-clay way of that part of the state, I set myself in determination. Today would be the day I would visit Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland, for the first time.
I had been by the house many times since childhood. It was a joke in my family that my grandmother could never keep straight which side of the road the house stood on, depending on which direction we were driving. She may have skipped a few grades and started to college at age sixteen, but directional matters often give her trouble. She would always say she had once seen Elvis pull up to the famous Graceland gate, and I remember stopping there when I was little not that long after he died. The home is a familiar site in Memphis. But I had never been inside the house. Something always kept me from doing so. On this day, though, I was determined.
We drove down Elvis Presley Boulevard and turned into the parking lot. So far so good. We got out of the car and started walking to the welcome complex. Mercy, what a spread. There were shops, an airplane, the radio station where Sirius XM Elvis Radio is broadcast. There were the aisles leading to the ticket kiosks.
I cannot remember exactly how much the tickets cost—the packages started somewhere around $35, I think—but it was not the case that I could not afford the price (although I fear that anybody reading this will think me the cheapest person on the planet). No, it was not the amount or an idea that Elvis is not worth that price. It was something else that halted me right at the precipice that day and turned me around, keeping me from taking the tour then and since. The best way I can describe it is to say that I just could not bring myself to pay to visit a cousin’s house.
Mississippi and the Elvis Connection
This article is about one person and his family’s connection to one of the most popular singers of all time in hopes that you will find it entertaining, maybe a little informative, and strangely familiar or at least in some way akin to your own attachments to an entertainer who unknowingly is part of your life. To use an Elvis reference, maybe your connections are kissing cousins to the kind I enumerate.
This Elvis “thing” with me started with my mother’s family who lived in Ripley. It seems that they started hearing about a long-haired boy who was getting attention in the area. My uncle and grandmother bought some of those earliest Sun records (sadly lost recently in a flood). Posters announced that this Elvis Presley would be performing across the street (Main Street) in the high school gymnasium, and my grandmother wanted to go. But for whatever reason my grandfather forbade it. No crossing the street. I am not sure why. He may have felt threatened by Elvis and/or his music in some way; he apparently liked to make fun of Elvis’s annunciation (i.e., “let’s walk up to the preach” instead of “let’s walk up to the preacher”).
Whatever the case, my grandmother did not make the trip across the street on that occasion. But not long after, on September 26, 1956, Elvis returned triumphantly to nearby Tupelo, his birthplace, and received the key to the town and gave two concerts at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. On that day, a Wednesday, my grandmother took my mother and uncle out of school and made the drive over to Tupelo. I have asked my mother what it was like to be there, and she replied that her main memory was of girls screaming. Also in the audience that day was future country star Tammy Wynette.
Early Channelings and Embracings
I have watched the full broadcast of the first Ed Sullivan Show episode Elvis appeared on, and I totally get how very different he was. Compared to the square, trim-haired entertainers around him, he looks like an alien dropped out of space, with his eyeshadow, open shirt, and unearthly hair. That radical, pouty, dangerous Elvis later went into the military, however, and in an string of films that drew long lines in Ripley’s movie theater, he became softer and more palatable. Maybe that military experience and the softer funnier Elvis of the movies were what won my grandfather over, for he later became a big fan. “One Night With You” was his favorite song.
My grandfather had arrived at fandom by the time I was born, so I came into being in an Elvis-loving family. I was two years old when Elvis died, but in my world he might as well have been alive still. I remember the colors of the 1960s still lingering in the late 70s in north Mississippi. My grandmother owned a sunglasses case with Elvis on it. And she had an LP with a blue cover featuring Elvis in a white jumpsuit, a kind of greatest hits. There is 8mm footage of me playing a toy guitar at age two, jumping around and shaking my long-ish hair while singing “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog.” My mother was more of a folk fan, but she liked Elvis all right. My uncle loved Elvis from the start and has a great deal of pride in having recognized how great Elvis would be from the moment he first appeared.
The most curious thing is that when I was growing up there were certain people my mother’s folks talked about as if they were members of the family. One was Guy Hovis, a singer from Tupelo on the Lawrence Welk Show. Bobbie Gentry was another. Archie Manning was both family and godlike, and his family—Olivia, Cooper, Peyton, and Eli—seemed our own. Multiply that to an even greater power and you get the way Elvis seemed.
And really it is not just my folks but the entire state. I am not quite ready to concede that everybody in Mississippi is related, but I will say that two factors contribute to this feeling of kinship and closeness to Elvis. One is that Mississippi is a much-derided state with a small population. If anyone ever amounts to anything, it is news, and because there are so few people, there is a kind of family feel, generally. The other factor is that whenever folks meet up in Mississippi who have never met before they immediately start recounting who their kinfolks are until, by and by, the two previous strangers realize that they are indeed related or that they know somebody in common or maybe once played ball against somebody they know. Thus, where Elvis may seem many things to many people, to me, at least, he always has seemed something of a cousin.
A Voice From Home
When I was a teenager, I moved with my family to the Pittsburgh area. It was an exciting experience to me, but it also was difficult. For the first time I encountered a question that has remained in my life ever since: “Where are you from?” These days, after having lived in a number of different places, including Munich, my accent has so morphed and developed that all people know for sure is that I am not from wherever it is I am standing at the moment. When the question comes, I reply that I was born in Mississippi, which immediately creates the curious effect of dimming the hopeful glimmer in their eyes. Realizing that they have often formed a more, shall we say, exotic or sophisticated expectation, I hasten to say that I have lived all over, including Germany. “That’s it,” many of them say, the glimmer resurging. “I knew the accent was European.” I rarely mention to them that while I can get by all right my German was never strong enough to alter my accent.
But when we first moved north, my family and I had little idea about people’s expectations, and it was very clear among the people in the area that we were from the South. This situation brought both good and bad results. On the good side, the accent came in handy as a way to attract girls. On the bad side, people figured you were an idiot, at the very least, and probably something much worse. But I had another ace up my sleeve, which was that I played music and sang. In my first year there was a talent show for the entire school, and I played and sang a few numbers and finished up with a joking, hammed-up Elvis impersonation. It was not meant to be a very good impersonation, but the kids went wild over it.
The fact is that Elvis, Crystal Gayle, Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dolly Parton, and Mississippian Jimmie Rodgers (I loved older country) all in their music kept me close to the South, and my connections with them deepened. It was during this time that I first really started to learn about Elvis and really listen to his music instead of it being something I just heard played. It was also the time I began to read the writing of William Faulkner which also brought the sound of my mother’s family into my ears.
Keeping Elvis close is easy now. As years continue to pass Elvis remains there, a family member whom I can call up on my iphone at any time in a way I cannot call up my grandfather, grandmother, and many other family members who have passed away. I can do this anywhere in the world, and when I hear Elvis I can feel at home and familiar.
In fact, I have run into Elvis elsewhere in the world, most memorably in Hungary. I was there with some fencing friends, and as we were driving around the Lake Balaton area we passed a sign that said, “Elvis Show.” It was going to take place while we were there. Somehow we found the venue—a kind of vineyard/restaurant thing with an upper room we all went to. There we encountered a Hungarian Elvis impersonator.
This fellow blended young and older Elvis. A bit overweight, he had the older Elvis body but wore the younger Elvis haircut. His costume consisted of a disappointing button-down and jeans, but he did have a few scarves to throw out. He could forevermore sing the songs, however, almost all of them in English and imitating Elvis’s voice. When he finished a number he would say, “köszönöm szépen, danke schön, and thank you very much.”
My grandmother had only recently passed away when I had this once-in-a-lifetime experience. As I sat there watching people who had grown up as part of the Soviet Union clapping stiffly in time with the beat of the songs, I thought about humble, fraught, beset Mississippi, far away, with its lush growths of kudzu, its strong clinging to the past, its many, many limitations in the eyes of the rest of the world. Yet here was one of its people, now long dead, living on in this impersonator, his voice and words alive as ever. And here I was. I wondered what experiences the people in the audience had had in connection with Elvis. I wondered, “who is their Elvis?” Before I left, I took one of the “Elvis Show” posters back to Florida with me and put it on my office door.
I wondered too if the impersonator had ever been to Graceland or to Tupelo, where stands Elvis’s birthplace as well as a shrine, a kind of temple where his recordings play continuously. I recall once visiting there and seeing a man dressed in a gold lamé suit with Elvis hair. He was from Austria, and he had made this pilgrimage to the shrine, going inside and kneeling while Elvis’s soft voice filled the building.
Yes, I have been to the Tupelo site. I took my girlfriend there. We went into the gift shop and talked to the worker. Turns out he knew somebody who knew somebody I knew. Mississippi folks. My cousin and her husband and kids live in Tupelo now. She talks about some kind of big annual Elvis event there where hundreds, maybe thousands of people dressed like Elvis show up. Tupelo is doable. This house you can go into and walk through in a few minutes. Could be a cousin’s house. It presents poor, Mississippi Elvis, not rich, stoned Tennessee Elvis.
Not that I am down on Elvis’s riches or judging him, per se. That is not what keeps me from going inside Graceland. It is something else. I think about the money-making machine that Elvis is, and I am happy for his riches. But I know that he himself was not hopped up on wealth, that he was constantly giving cars away to people he had just met and that when he read in the paper that a poor girl needed surgery she could not afford, he showed up and gave her the money for it. In my mind, that man would not charge people much if anything to visit. Colonel Parker, from the Netherlands, might, but not Elvis Presley, one of the folks from over in Tupelo.
When I was a graduate student at Ole Miss I wrote a paper on Elvis and karate in the context of poor white performance. As part of the research, I got in contact with one of Elvis’s karate instructors, Wayne Carman, who had in his possession the only copy of the martial arts film Elvis had attempted to make, The New Gladiators. Carman was living in Arkansas, where some of my cousins had moved, and talking to him was very easy to do. He had known Elvis, but really in a way so did I. And perhaps you do too.
I eventually published the paper as an article in an academic journal. I had thought to develop the essay into a book in which I examined poor white people who are involved in karate. I knew a preacher who ran a karate school out of the fellowship hall of a church, and I think he would have made for a pretty entertaining interview. But I never have followed up, and I do not know that I will. I think old cousin Elvis is doing all right without that book, and it does not do to harry rock-and-roll with too much pedantry. Better to quit writing and turn on the music.
I have the “Blue Album” right here, actually—made of transparent blue vinyl, it was the final record Elvis made. I am setting it on Side A, Track 4: “He’ll Have to Go.”
Thank you very much for reading.