Photo credits, clockwise from upper left: Time Magazine, Wikipedia, CBC, The Boston Globe
by ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ
Elvis Presley and White Nationalists
I first noticed it in 1973, when I was working at Harrah’s Tahoe, the populist
casino that bussed in hundreds of white working class people from the California
Central Valley and Sacramento valley towns to spend twelve hours playing the nickel
slots, then bussing them back home–free, good clean fun, except they usually left rent
money or mortgage payments behind.
I worked first as a slots change “girl” on the floor, elbow to elbow, shoulder to
shoulder, breath to breath, with these people. They were familiar to me as my own
relatives from having grown up in rural Oklahoma, many of them descendants of the
Dust Bowl Okies or the “defense” Okies, those who migrated to work in defense plants
along the Pacific coast during World War II. Most of these sojourners were in their
thirties and forties back in the early 1970s. I was thirty-three myself at the time and a
Sixties’ veteran of a decade of civil rights, anti-war, anti-racist, and feminist movements,
burned out in the lovely Lake Tahoe basin, trying to write a book before descending back
to urban reality and re-assuming my rebel stance. But, I had to work a forty-hour week,
punch a time clock, to subsist. I didn’t get much writing done, drinking with my co-
workers after the graveyard shift.
Promoted to a change booth in slots, I sat all alone on my perch with a bird’s eye
vision of the slots section and nearly the entire casino floor. There were shows all night
in the casino, some of them without charge, such as Fats Domino frequently performing
in one of the bar areas for the price of a drink. Others took place in the big show rooms,
but were not expensive, at least not at Harrah’s. I saw Sonny and Cher, Raquel Welch
with her living puppet show–living because the “puppets” were living dwarfs–and there
was the hulking figure of Merle Haggard many nights, at a Blackjack table, playing alone
against the dealer.
A bloated, nearly dead, has-been Elvis Presley–he died four years later at forty-
three–was another. Elvis had been my king sixteen years earlier when I was a senior in
high school, 1955-56. I had moved from the country to Oklahoma City to live with my
sister that school year, working nearly full time and finish high school at a trade school.
Volunteering as an usher at the Municipal Auditorium, I was able to get in free to see
Elvis perform in person. On other occasions at the Oklahoma City Municipal
Auditorium, I volunteered as an usher and saw Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Little Richard,
Ruth Brown, Chuck Berry, and other favorites of us “wild” teenagers–it was also the
year of “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Blackboard Jungle.” This music shook up my
presumptions, well-honed by my Southern Baptist upbringing, and opened doors of my
mind. The music, and my admiration for the Black artists, coincided with Civil Rights
demonstrations in Oklahoma City–I was attending the first integrated high school in its
first year of integration–and had to do with making me supportive of that growing
Poet and songwriter, John Trudell, called Elvis our “Baby-Boom Ché,” in his
wonderful 1992 song:
You wanna know what happened to Elvis?
I’ll tell ya what happened.
I oughta know, man, I was one of his army.
I mean, man, I was on his side,
He made us feel all right.
We were the first wave in the post war baby boom.
The generation before had just come out of the great depression
and World War Two,
You know, heavy vibes for people to wear,
So much heaviness
Like some kind of voiding of the emotions.
You know, the songs life always carries.
You know, every culture has songs?
Well, anyway, their music was restrained emotion,
You know, like you didn’t wanna dance
If you didn’t know how,
Which says something strange.
Well, anyway, Elvis came along about ten years after the nuke
When the only generals America had and the only army she had
Were Ike and Mac
And stupor hung over the land,
A plague where everyone tried to materially free themselves,
Still too shell-shocked to understand
To feel what was happening.
The first wave rebelled,
I mean, we danced even if we didn’t know how,
I mean Elvis made us move.
Instead of standing mute he raised our voice
And when we heard ourselves something was changing,
You know, like for the first time we made a collective decision
America hurriedly made Pat Boone a general
In the army they wanted us to join
But most of us held fast to Elvis and the commandants around him
Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly,
Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent,
You know, like a different Civil War all over again
I mean, you take ‘Don’t Be Cruel’, ‘I Want You I Need You I Love You’ And
Or you take Pat and his white bucks singing love letters in the sand,
Hell, man, what’s real here?
I mean, Pat at the beach in his white bucks,
His ears getting sunburned,
Told us something about old wave delusion.
Then before long Elvis got assassinated in all the fame,
Taking a long time to die.
Others seized control while Elvis rode the needle out
Never understanding what he done.
It’s like we were the baby boom because life needed a fresher start,
I mean, two world wars in a row is really crazy man
And Elvis, even though he didn’t know he said it, He showed it to us anyway
And even though we didn’t know we heard it,
We heard it anyway
Man, like he woke us up
And now they’re trying to put us back to sleep.
So we’ll see how it goes,
Anyway, look at the record, man,
Rock ’n’ roll is based on revolutions
Going way past 331⁄3
You gotta understand, man,
He was America’s baby Boom Ché.
I oughta know man,
I was in his army.
By 1973, most of us who had been in Elvis’s metaphorical army thought Elvis was
an embarrassment and a tragedy. The other Rhythm and Blues/Rock and Roll artists
from the 1950s–the Black artists, were still revered, but not Elvis. I assumed my
attitude was universal, but I saw with my own eyes how Elvis packed them into the
Nevada casinos during the 1970s in his second career. Judging from his fans that I
observed, members of the new generation were not among them, rather those who
would have been teens like me or a few years older in the early and mid 1950s when he
burst on the scene. Then I realized that many of my own cousins and friends from that
time who had scorned Elvis were now enthusiastic fans. I was the single only individual
from my poor, rural extended family and friends, mostly Southern Baptists, to become a
rock and roller and later a blazing leftist radical.
One night, sitting in my change booth on high, nearly thinking through the din of
the thunking one-armed bandits and jackpot alarms, it hit me: These fans of the
second-act Elvis had been the “squares,” as we called them in the 50s, the good little
Baptists who thought Elvis was vulgar sexually, and that we who adored him were
sinners headed for hell. They were now living what they had missed and must have
envied desperately when they were teens. Now it was safe, but still fun.
A similar revelation came to me as I witnessed the participants in the Tea Party
rallies against Obama, ballooning into Trump’s stadium events. They are the same
people grown older, plus later baby-boomers who missed the Sixties fun of mass
rebellion, mostly from rural or small towns or working class white suburbs. They were
the ones drafted into the Vietnam War or went to business school or trade school, rather
than Berkeley or Harvard. They were the ones who raised children in their evangelical
and fundamentalist Protestant faiths. They are who I was supposed to turn out to be,
except for a “simple twist of fate,” or maybe Elvis’s gyrating hips. They are doing a
parody of the Sixties that they missed.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a historian and author of 12 books, most recently, Not
“A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler-Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of
Erasure and Exclusion.