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Surveying Sin in American Music

What a blast! But there’s danger in the air─someone on the dark floor’s got a gun, and everyone “does his best to act just right, ’cause it’s gonna be a funeral if you start a fight.” In [Billy] Hughes’s terms, folks “struggle and they shuffle” until the sun comes up, delicate diction for a Saturday of screwing and fighting. “Tennessee Saturday Night” hit number one on March 19, 1949, and remained on the Billboard country charts for nearly three months.

“Gonna push the clouds away, let the music have its way, let it steal my heart away, and you know I’m-a-goin’.” On Saturday nights, the journey is as jubilant as the destination. So affirms John Fogerty in “Almost Saturday Night, from his self-titled album, released on Asylum in September of 1975. This narrative is fractured, too: there’s a train bringing the rodeo to town, or is it bringing the singer home? A radio is playing outside the window (a bedroom? a train compartment?), but it competes with the bells at the train crossing, or from an imagined Gibson in the hands of a Chuck Berry wannabe. The story is embodied in the singing, exultant melody, and arrangement that praise and make passionate contact with the expectations of a long-awaited weekend night. Six years after Fogerty released the song, Welshman Dave Edmunds issued his own rollicking version (on his album Twangin), its joy elevating the song’s hopes and promises in the universal, trans-oceanic desire: bye bye tomorrow. The most powerful word in the song is “almost.” The taste of a Saturday night’s recklessness and exhilaration is more rousing at the brink of maybe, when anticipated, when prayed for.

Joe Bonomo, writing in The Normal School about the role sex, drinking, violence and catharsis play in American music, particularly country, blues and rock and roll, and the ways people sing about blowing off steam. Bonomo’s essay ran in Spring 2014.

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Call It Rape

Margot Singer | The Normal School | 2012 | 23 minutes (5,683 words)

The Normal SchoolThanks to Margot Singer and The Normal School for sharing this story with the Longreads community.
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Still life with man and gun

Three girls are smoking on the back porch of their high school dorm. It’s near midnight on a Saturday in early autumn, the leaves not yet fallen, the darkness thick. A man steps out of the woods. He is wearing a black ski mask, a hooded jacket, leather gloves. He has a gun. He tells the girls to follow him, that if they make a noise or run he’ll shoot. He makes them lie face down on the ground. He rapes first one and then the others. He walks away. Read more…

Don't Be Cruel: A Brief History of Elvis-Hating in America, Our Member Pick

Ned Stuckey-French | The Normal School | Fall 2012 | 20 minutes (4,999 words)

 

For this week’s Longreads Member Pick, we’re excited to share “Don’t Be Cruel: A Brief History of Elvis-Hating in America,” from Ned Stuckey-French and The Normal School

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My wife Elizabeth and I went to Graceland for the first time twenty-five years ago, right after we married, and as the van took us back down the hill to the parking lot, the driver asked his load of tourists if we had enjoyed our tour. One lady, a true pilgrim who had been sitting silently by herself, responded softly and immediately, “It was vury movin’.” I looked at my wife and rolled my eyes.

I’m ashamed now of that response, because during the last few years I have rediscovered Elvis. Come home to the King, really. I always liked the early stuff, watched the first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was a kid and the ’68 Comeback Special as an adolescent, but now…well…now things are different.

It began when research for Elizabeth’s most recent novel took her to Tennessee and some awful Cold War–era experiments on pregnant women at Vanderbilt. She needed the experiments, but not Nashville, and she’d been through Memphis a lot as a kid. She grew up in Indiana and when her family went to Little Rock, where her grandmother lived, they always went through Memphis. So, being a fiction writer, she just moved the experiments from Nashville to Memphis.

Fifties. Memphis. Elvis was unavoidable. Soon we found ourselves doing fieldwork in places like the annual Big E Festival in Cornelia, Georgia, with its T-shirts and tribute-artist contest (don’t call them impersonators). Then, almost before we realized what was happening, we’d visited the home place in Tupelo, begun buying CDs, watched bad movie after bad movie, put nothing but Elvis on our iPod, read and re-read the biographies. But mostly we went to Memphis—a dozen times or so we went to Memphis. Sometimes we took our daughters; sometimes Elizabeth went alone; more often we went together—to Graceland, to the house on Audubon Drive, to Sun Studio, to Dixie Locke’s house, to the band shell at Overton Park. One weekend we stayed in the Presley family’s old apartment in the Lauderdale Courts. But following Elvis around town means going everywhere—to the city’s blues clubs and barbecue joints (not the ones on the now gussied Beale Street, the real ones), record stores, the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, and Lansky’s for shirts. Everywhere there is the residue of the past—a past still hoping for a future that hasn’t arrived. Neon lights that seem to speak from the Fifties—Prince Mongo’s Planet, Walker Radiator Works, and a glowing shirt (with bowtie) waving you into Happy Day Cleaners. Flaking painted signs on brick walls, palimpsests from another age hawking beers and tobacco products no longer available. A beauty shop that’s become a restaurant called Beauty Shop, its décor all Naugahyde and glass bricks. Sometimes, it seems, the whole city is done up in retro, right down to the Lorraine Motel—its balcony so familiar, its hopes undone.

Tad Pierson showed us a lot of this. He gives custom tours in his 1955 pink Cadillac, what he calls “anthro-tourism.” He introduced us to Jimmy Denson, who grew up with Elvis in Lauderdale and whose brother, Jesse Lee, taught Elvis how to play guitar. Most of our friends think we’ve gone round the bend and are absolutely mondo, though one of them, the fiction writer Robert Olen Butler, gave us a beautiful portrait of Elvis made of candy wrappers and a certified piece of Elvis’s hair.

I assure you there is very little irony in all this, and Bob’s gifts are true sacraments, given and received as such. Yet I must admit I remain uncertain about this brave new world in which I find myself, and there are lines I still won’t cross. I don’t have an Elvis tattoo on my shoulder, for instance (though Elizabeth does). I believe Elvis is dead and isn’t Jesus. He left the building and won’t come back. And, as much as I love his music, even the rhinestone ballads of the seventies, I see the skid of his last five years—the long, druggy depression after Priscilla left—as impossible to defend. Finally, however, I’m surprised at how I willingly I’ve given myself over to the King.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons