In December 1956 Elvis Presley dropped in at Sun Studios in Memphis, just as a Carl Perkins recording session was ending. Presley was now a national star, having transcended earlier that year his previous status as a regional rockabilly performer. That special day became known as the Million Dollar Session because of the supposed "million dollars" worth of talent that included Presley, Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, briefly, Johnny Cash. An open microphone recorded a lively jam session. For the student of southern religious music, it was an especially revealing moment. In addition to improvising with country, blues, and early rock songs, the group sang from the common body of southern religious songs, some of them gospel tunes that dated from nineteenth-century revivals, others African American spirituals, others popular gospel-quartet numbers. All of these young performers who had grown up in the countryside near Memphis knew the songs, and when one started singing, the others easily fell into supporting lines. They had all come out of church backgrounds and would have been familiar with "Farther Along," "When God Dips His Love in My Heart," "Blessed Jesus (Hold My Hand)," and "As We Travel Along on the Jericho Road." Elvis sang "Peace in the Valley," an old classic written by black composer Thomas A. Dorsey and the song he sang on the "Ed Sullivan Show" to defuse public concerns that he was an immoral renegade destroying America's youth. Between songs the boys talked about the white gospel quartets that were so active around Memphis, an epicenter of white and black gospel traditions. (1)
"Just a Little Talk with Jesus" was an especially revealing song of southern spirituality that day in Sun Studios, two years after the 1954 Brown decision and one year before the Soviet satellite Sputnik, during a decade that launched extraordinary cultural changes in the South. Elvis knew the song profoundly, singing a lively version and then slowing down the pace to fit the mood of the lyrics. The song's narrator tells the essential evangelical story of one "lost in sin" but not without hope because "Jesus took me in." When that happened, "a little light from heaven" filled his soul. Redemption is seen in the next lines, which say God "made my heart in love and He wrote my name above." Despite "doubts and fears" and even though "your eyes be filled with tears," "my Jesus is a friend who watches day and night." In the end, "just a little talk with Jesus gonna make it right." (2)
The Million Dollar Session is an appropriate introduction to the importance of Elvis Presley in understanding the role that music played in defining a distinctive southern spirituality and the impact on that relationship of the dramatic changes in the South over the roughly two decades between that day in Sun Studios in 1956 and Presley's death in Memphis in 1977. Charles Wolfe, Peter Guralnick, and other historians and journalists have written about Presley's relationship to the gospel music tradition, but the broader question of how Presley can help open up the unexplored issue of southern spirituality has not been explored.
Studies of "American spirituality" that stress the distinction between "religion" and "spirituality" have recently appeared. Robert Wuthnow, a leading student of American spirituality, concludes that this new scholarly work reflects increasing popular interest in spirituality. People see spirituality as "somehow more authentic, more personally compelling, an expression of their search for the sacred," whereas religion suggests a "social arrangement that seems arbitrary, limiting or at best convenient." Despite the new popular and scholarly interest in American spirituality, none of the scholarly works even mentions the South or southerners, and certainly none addresses a regional expression of spirituality that comes out of the white working-class culture of the South. (3) Neither the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South nor the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture include entries on "spirituality," and a survey of classic works by historians Samuel Hill, David Edwin Harrell, Wayne Flynt, and others suggest they have seldom dealt directly with "spirituality" in the context of a southern regional religious tradition.
Historian Samuel Weber's recent article, "Spirituality in the South," prepared for the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, has intentionally opened up the topic for analysis, but the essay stresses that "one can see as many 'spiritualities' ... as there are individual seekers." While undoubtedly true, Elvis Presley's inherited and changing spirituality does relate to predominant regional patterns. While young Presley can easily be seen as a representative southerner of his time and place, it is hard to make that argument for the last two decades of his life, dominated as they were by the extraordinary success and celebrity that moved him beyond regional to national and international contexts. Nonetheless, his relationship to religious music and southern spirituality makes him a revealing and perhaps even an emblematic figure in southern culture. (4)
The scholarly discussion of spirituality originally came more out of Catholic tradition than the Protestant one that has dominated the American South. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines the term "spirituality" as referring to "people's subjective practice and experience of their religion, or to the spiritual exercises and beliefs which individuals or groups have with regard to their personal experience with God." This might include prayer, meditation, contemplation, and mysticism. It notes that certain groups have "a characteristic set of spiritual practices and beliefs" such that "they may be regarded as constituting a 'school of spirituality'," such as Cistercian spirituality, Carmelite spirituality, or Jesuit spirituality. Reflecting recent changes, the dictionary notes that this usage is now more generalized, "so that there is an increasing interest in 'lay spirituality,' 'married spirituality,' etc." In this context, religious music should be seen as the essence of a distinctive southern school of spirituality, rooted in particular spiritual exercises and devotional practices.
Consideration of spirituality in a regional context deepens the understanding that religiosity has infused southern culture far beyond the church doors. Presley's spirituality reflected the significance of the role of spiritual practice. Robert Wuthnow makes a useful distinction between "spirituality," which he defines as "a transcendent state of being or an aspect of reality," and the related idea of "spiritual practice," which he sees as "a more active or intentional form of behavior." Few studies have examined ways in which spiritual practices change during people's lives and even fewer give attention to ways that American cultural changes affect the meaning of spiritual practices. Spirituality is socially constructed, and Elvis Presley's evolving spirituality, based in distinctive southern spiritual practices, provides a revealing focus for examining a virtually unexplored area of southern religiosity over several decades in the mid-twentieth century. (5)
OLD-TIME MUSIC--ELVIS'S SPIRITUAL INHERITANCE
Gladys Presley's favorite singing group was the Louvin Brothers, the harmonizing country-music duo steeped in the South's religious music, and their experience shows something of a traditional, southern white school of spirituality based in religious music, which Elvis inherited. Born in the 1920s, the Louvins grew up at Sand Mountain, an isolated area in northern Alabama less than two hundred miles from Presley's Tupelo and part of the same hill-country, predominantly white folk culture. Music was an essential part of individual, family, and community life. In addition to dances and fiddling contests, such specifically religious gatherings as all-day church singings and Sacred Harp singings characterized the culture of the area, Their grandfather was a traditional banjo picker, and their mother sang old, unaccompanied folk ballads, like "Knoxville Girl," with roots in the British Isles. Their mother's family in general were active in Sacred Harp singing, a tradition based on songs from a popular songbook of that name from the 1840s that used shape notes, rather than position on the musical staff, to determine pitch. Once popular in New England and other areas of the United States, by the twentieth century shape-note singing came to be associated mostly with southern rural communities. Churches moved beyond its forms as worship music, but periodic singings, often in church buildings, created a "second church" experience as people renewed a traditional Calvinist-inspired faith by singing the old songs the old way. Sacred Harp singing helped to perpetuate a strong strain of Calvinism in the rural South, even as churches themselves softened Calvinism's rigors through a theology of redemption.
As well as growing up singing Sacred Harp songs, the Louvins participated in other activities that gave structure to this southern school of spirituality. Rural singing schools taught by traveling teachers who would instruct students in religious and other music, for example, became pervasive in the hill-country South. The singing convention also anchored southern spirituality. It gathered together those who wanted to sing new songs, published in small, paperback religious songbooks--which became an important devotional factor--and made accessible older and newer religious songs. Companies in the Tennessee towns of Lawrenceburg and Chattanooga, not far from either the Louvins or the Presleys, used modern, aggressive sales practices to promote their books, including sponsoring professional gospel quartets who sang from the new songbooks. These institutions and practices provided a structure for a southern spirituality rooted in religious music. (6)
The Louvins lived through the modernization of southern religious music, and the publishing companies were one example of that. The coming of radio in the 1920s and rural electrification of much of the rural South in the 1930s made religious music even more accessible and important to a changing culture. The Louvins heard Sunday morning preaching and everyday hymn singing on their radios. Phonograph records as well became an important source for the Louvins and other southerners in the evolving culture of spirituality in the decades between world wars. When their father visited Knoxville, he would go to the music store and bring home a dozen or so albums, which the family would listen to long into the night, including the mournful ballads of the Carter Family and the up-tempo religious songs of the Chuck Wagon Gang, both enormously popular, early southern recording artists who drew from the traditional musical culture and defined it for a new generation of listeners. Once they started performing, the Louvins themselves became a force in this school of southern spirituality. "We were always running into people who said that Louvin Brothers music caused them to live in a Christian home," remembered Charlie Louvin. "I run into people constantly that make you feel like you're a preacher." Listening devoutly to Louvin Brothers records became a regular practice for those seeking not only entertainment but spiritual enlightenment rooted in the old ways of southern religion. (7)
Music-based southern spirituality had, in fact, several expressions. Hank Williams, who grew up in central Alabama, not far south of the Louvin Brothers' home on Sand Mountain, was an immediate predecessor to Elvis as reigning musical giant in the South, and his experiences reveal much as well about southern spirituality. Hank's mother, Lillie, played organ at the Mount Olive West Baptist Church, and Hank sat beside her and sang "louder 'n' anybody else," as he put it. Lillie wanted him to "shout for the Lord," so she scraped together the money to send him to a shape-note singing school in Avant, Alabama. He learned hymns and gospel songs there that music critic Colin Escott says influenced Williams's approach to music in general more than anything else. With Hank Williams we encounter a version of southern spirituality that is different from what Presley's would be. Williams's is a dark spirituality, based not on the spirit-filled religion of Holiness-Pentecostalism that influenced Presley. Rather, Williams grew up in the Baptist church, inheriting a strong feeling of Calvinist sinfulness reinforced by the temptations he faced in his life as a working-class entertainer. His favorite song was "Death Is Only a Dream," filled with morbid images and supernaturalism:
Sadly we sing with tremulous breath As we stand by the mystical stream, In the valley and by the dark river of death And yet 'tis no more than a dream.
His moralistic spirituality appeared in his narrative recordings as the fictitious singer Luke the Drifter, which included titles such as "Pictures from Life's Other Side," "Too Many Parties and Too Many Pals," "The Funeral," and "I've Been Down That Road Before." He bragged that "Men with Broken Hearts," which he wrote, was "the awfulest, morbidest song you ever heard in your life." The song on the charts at the time of his death was "You'll Never Get out of This World Alive." Hank Williams came out of a hard-scrabble, working-class world, and he came out of a hard-shell religious world as well. The broken bodies and broken hearts of this poor South nurtured a demanding, rigorous faith realized in a morbid, otherworldly, and unforgiving religious music. An important aspect of southern spirituality in its time and place, religious music was pervasive and articulated the frustrated spiritual strivings and spiritual dislocations of white working-class southerners moving from a world of sharecropping into that of a modern South. (8)
Elvis Presley grew up in the Assemblies of God church, a Pentecostal denomination that resembled Hank Williams's Baptist church in its fundamentalist theology and rigorous expectations about moral behavior, but Pentecostals also sought the gifts of the spirit that could bring a transcendent spiritual ecstasy to people who often suffered life's vale of tears. Gladys took young Elvis to church in east Tupelo, and she reported the singing and the service left her feeling "renewed and restored." When Presley was two years old, he jumped out of her lap at church and ran down to the front to sing with the choir, foreshadowing his musical preoccupations and his attraction to religious music. As a child he listened to the country gospel records his mother favored--the Louvin Brothers, the Bailes Brothers, and James and Martha Carson, for example. Charles Wolfe describes the formative recorded religious music Elvis heard as "urgent, passionate, straining harmonies born in the Pentecostal church." His spirituality took shape not only through these recordings but also by hearing the same songs at church revivals and Friday night gospel singings in Tupelo, regularly attended by Elvis and his parents. Such listening to "urgent, passionate, straining harmonies," along with attendance at communal singings and the everyday singing of religious music by his mother, provided a family devotional context for Elvis's developing spirituality akin to that of countless white southerners before and after him. (9)
Elvis was thirteen when his family moved to Memphis, a musically vibrant community particularly rich in gospel singing. Sunday afternoon singings in church were typical, and gospel quartets often held song battles to gain fame and respect. In 1950 the Mississippi-born Blackwood Brothers, the most famous white gospel quartet in the nation, moved to Memphis, presiding over two daily shows on WMPS, developing their own record label, and initiating concerts at Ellis Auditorium, the mother church of Memphis gospel music. A new institution of the school of southern musical spirituality developed in the 1940s when promoter Wally Fowler popularized packaged all-night gospel singings that soon spread across the region, including Memphis. Elvis heard dignified older groups like the Speers and the Chuck Wagon Gang, whose songs grew out of shape-note influences, and he heard the soaring harmonies of the Blackwood Brothers, who adapted songs from black quartets such as the Soul Stirrers and the Golden Gate Quartet. While extending the centrality of music to southern spirituality, these singings were commercial and performance events of popular culture with a new flashy showmanship. As Charles Wolfe notes, "It was the hottest and most exciting fad in gospel music at the time: the dynamic young quartets, clicked up in their white coats, bow ties, and pencil-thin mustaches, backed up by a pumping piano player that owed as much to Art Tatum as to Liberace, framed by sky-high tenors and booming bass voices, throwing the old stand-up mikes back and forth like batons." He adds that "it was a different kind of spirituality, but spirituality nonetheless," with a new vigor of movement. It represented show business to Elvis and others at the all-night singings, but these performances reinforced the function of religious music in teaching about such tenets of predominant southern evangelical culture as a familiarity with biblical characters and stories, moralistic expectations seen in song lyrics, and the peculiar dynamic of sin and salvation at work in evangelical faith. The increasingly slick world of modern gospel music nonetheless reinforced older, familiar messages for religious southerners. (10)
Presley was also able to experience black religious music in Memphis, making it a formative part of his developing spirituality. He listened to daily radio shows over WDIA, which dominated the black gospel scene with disc jockey Theo "Bless My Bones" Wade daily broadcasting nationally known black gospel groups and local groups like the Spirit of Memphis, the Brewsteraires, and the Dixie Nightingales. The radio station sponsored Goodwill Revues at Ellis Auditorium. Presley went to East Trigg Baptist Church to hear the preaching and singing of the Reverend William Herbert Brewster, one of the greatest of African American gospel songwriters, and his lead soloist, Queen C. Anderson. Presley later remembered that he enjoyed Brewster's frequent preaching on the idea that a better day was coming, one in which all men could walk together as brothers. Brewster recalled when Elvis and other young whites came to the church not only to worship but to sing. "I knew that it wasn't going to hurt when I said 'Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone,' whether I say it with one beat or two or high or low. I told them to come in here and put your stuff together. They came in here and it was a glorious experience and Elvis was in that group." (11)
The Elvis before Sun Studios continued developing an identifiable religiosity. In 1954 he began attending an Assemblies of God church in south Memphis, whose preacher denounced films and dancing and encouraged "ecstatic demonstrations of faith," such as speaking in tongues. He attended a Bible study group on Sunday mornings; yes, he was one of the Christ Ambassadors (a youthful group that sought to bring people to church). The Blackwood Brothers were also members of this congregation, and Presley grew increasingly involved in attending their gospel singings and became a frequent presence backstage. Soon, quartet singing became, as Peter Guralnick says, "the center of his musical universe. Gospel music combined the spiritual force that he felt in all music with this sense of physical release and exaltation for which, it seemed, he was casting about." As a teenager, then, religious music came particularly to embody a "spiritual force," which was linked with the exaltation he must have first felt when singing religious music with his family and at spirit-filled Pentecostal services. (12)
When Presley entered the national stage of early rock success, he faced criticism from ministers about his lewd performances, and a friend at the time said he cried when he read a newspaper story that claimed he was ignoring his religion. In an interview he admitted that his travel schedule did not permit his attending church, but he avowed, "I believe in God. I believe in Him with all my heart. I believe all good things come from God.... And the way I feel about it, being religious means that you love God and are real grateful for all He's given, and want to work for Him. I feel deep in my heart that I'm doing all this." He was defensive about the Assemblies of God and charges that his energetic performance style came from the church. He objected with uncharacteristic vehemence to the label "holy rollers," a derogatory term applied to Pentecostal groups such as the Assemblies of God. He labeled his denomination a holiness church but insisted, "I have never used the expression Holy Roller." He also declared that he "always attended church where people sang, stood up, and sang in the choir and worshiped God." In a separate interview a reporter asked him about his "unique style," and he admitted that he had "landed upon it accidentally. More or less I am a pretty close follower of religious quartets, and they do a lot of rockin' spirituals." When a story then appeared that, in Presley's words, "I got the jumping around from my religion," he denied it. "My religion has nothin' to do with what I do now," he said, adding that "the type stuff I do now is not religious music." For Presley, religious music remained in a different category from rock, one that expressed his spiritual strivings above and beyond the material success he attained. Despite his enormous success with rock 'n' roll, he insisted on recording his first gospel album, Peace in the Valley, in 1957, early in his national career. (13)
Through the coming decades, religious music remained an anchor for him, despite the successes and temptations of such places as Hollywood and Las Vegas and frequent touring in the last years of his life. Like the South itself in the 1960s and early 1970s, Presley experienced enormous changes that took him far beyond the spirituality that a spirit-filled Pentecostal faith and the power of gospel music embodied. By the mid-1960s, for example, Presley was using LSD at Graceland and reading about Timothy Leary, although, as one scholar has noted, he did. so in typically Presley fashion--turning on the television and ordering a pizza to go with his LSD. Larry Geller was Elvis's hair dresser, but he became his spiritual guru, directing Presley into much new spiritual reading and practice. It began with Presley's reading of Joseph Benner's The Impersonal Life, a 1917 volume teaching that God was in each human. That message was one that Presley responded to immediately, having long before embraced the belief that his extraordinary success was a gift from God with some purpose to it he had yet to discover. He later read Autobiographj of a Yogi, by Indian holy man Paramahansa Yogananda, and he read New Thought treatises by Madame Blavatsky and Krishnamurti. This was, to be sure, an extraordinary change for the unlettered Presley, and one that disrupted his life. His buddy Joe Esposito recalled that Presley would get up in the morning, "and he's sitting there reading a book and asking questions about religion. Hey, what about the football game that happened last weekend? We used to sit and watch football games. All that stuff was gone." In March 1965 Presley had a profound religious experience in the desert near Flagstaff, Arizona, where he said he saw the face of God in the clouds. He began visiting the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine Retreat in California and told one friend he wanted to become a monk. He found a new serenity through the leader of the Self-Realization Fellowship, Sri Daya Mata. She recalled later that "he wanted to be a great spiritual influence on all these young people--that was at the basis of his desire." Presley told her that he wanted "to awaken in all these young people a closer relationship to God." (14)
What can one make of this increasingly experimental spirituality that Presley embraced in the mid-1960s? For purposes of considering southern spirituality, it obviously is a wild departure from the norms with which he had grown up, reflecting perhaps his struggles to come to terms with fame and its demands upon him. Part of him surely became unmoored from formerly reliable anchors. In moving from traditional evangelical-based spirituality into new forms of popular religion, Presley was getting caught up in larger changing patterns of American spirituality and should not be seen as entirely idiosyncratic. He joined countless other southerners and other Americans as participants in new forms of popular spirituality. Asian religions, for example, developed a new influence in the 1960s, and transcendental meditation in particular became prominent in popular religion. Like so many other southerners, Presley now had access to these ideas through television, the movies, inexpensive paperback books, popular magazines, and especially tabloids that told of psychic phenomena, communicating with the dead, UFOS, Ravi Shankar's spiritual influence on the Beatles, and other phenomena that would appear outrageously unorthodox to the traditional evangelical denominations. (15)
At the same time, those traditional denominations continued to dominate the southern religious scene in these years, becoming even more powerful forces in politics, whether for liberal civil rights causes or conservative New Right issues, and gaining in economic clout as the region's economy boomed in the years of the Sunbelt. Similarly, despite his early New Age instincts, Presley at the same time held fast to religious music as his anchor amid other changes in both his material and spiritual life. Gospel music continued to represent the legacy of the southern spirituality that he had grown up with and which now saw him through the transitions of his life in the 1960s and 1970s. Back in Memphis in the mid-1960s, after an extended stay in California, Presley visited his mother's grave weekly and sent flowers three times a week. His mother symbolized his earlier faith, and his return to Memphis seemed to trigger a new concern for his traditional spirituality. He told a reporter that he wanted to start going to church again, recalling that church had been "our way of life since I can remember." He admitted that the last time he had attended church services "there was so much confusion, and auto-graph seeking, that out of respect I've stayed away." Still, he felt continuing religious needs and believed his music best expressed his faith. "I've been working on religious songs for an album. I feel God and His goodness, and I believe I can express His love for us in music." (16)
Spirituality is, by definition, about the interior life and the spiritual exercises to cultivate it, but Presley saw his spirituality as also having a public dimension, that of reaching countless people through his music. In addition to his first gospel album, Peace in the Valley, Presley recorded three other gospel albums, and the songs and arrangements he selected reveal much about his spirituality in the 1960s and 1970s. His second gospel album, His Hand in Mine, recorded in the fall of 1960, included seven songs by the Statesmen, the white gospel group that influenced him so much in general. Among the songs were "Milky White Way," a black gospel standard, with the arrangement modeled on the Trumpeteers, a Baltimore quartet of the 1940s; "Mansion over the Hilltop," a country gospel number based on an old preacher's story; "Swing Down Sweet Chariot," a quartet number recorded by one of Presley's favorite black gospel groups, the Golden Gate Quartet, but with an arrangement from the Blackwood Brothers; and "If We Never Meet Again," written by one of the great white gospel songwriters, Albert Brumley. His third gospel album, How Great Thou Art, was not a tribute to classic gospel quartet singing as much as it was a collection of "church specials," numbers popular in revivals and the churches themselves. Again, it was a mix of songs popularized by black and white gospel groups. Among the songs on the album were "Farther Along," a country gospel classic that first appeared in the Stamps-Baxter songbook in 1937; "Where Could I Go but to the Lord," another songbook tune that a Mississippi singing-school teacher had written; "Run On," which had been popularized by the Golden Gate Quartet; and "Stand By Me," which Charles Albert Tindley, another prolific African American songwriter, published in 1905. (17)
Presley's fourth gospel album appeared in 1971 and reflected changes in gospel music and the evolution of his spirituality. California-centered Jesus music, exultant praise music, and the beginnings of Christian rock were well represented, moving beyond the southern origins of gospel. New gospel songwriters such as Andrae Crouch and Ralph Carmichael had songs on the album. As a California-based songwriter who added strings and large orchestras to his gospel compositions, Carmichael was particularly significant in terms of changes. One sacred song on the album stood out even more than the others. "Miracle of the Rosary" explored a more Catholic sensibility than anything Presley had ever done, again suggesting that his spiritual journeying in music was not just in new spiritualities of the 1960s but in a traditional Catholic one that now resonated with him. (18)
Presley's public spirituality included an active promotion of religious music. He incorporated gospel songs into his movie soundtracks, as when he included "Swing Down Sweet Chariot" in Trouble with Girls. He introduced gospel music to Las Vegas--no mean feat--including religious numbers in his performances there. He showcased the Jordanaires, the Stamps Quartet, and other gospel groups wherever he performed in the 1970s. Such promotion conveyed his personal spirituality to audiences that were not expecting such open religiosity in an entertainment venue, even if they were often receptive to it. He saw his actions as essential parts of his growing efforts to witness his faith through religious music. The mix of private and public spirituality appears on the tape of a 1970s concert, when Presley asks the audience to listen to the Stamps Quartet singing "Sweet, Sweet Spirit." Presley lets them sing, while he appears transported by listening to the music, his eyes closed, his head gently shaking, and then smiling along with a certain line and musical notes--the image of his private spirituality written on his public stage. (19)
In his use of music to convey a religious message, Presley reflected the abiding evangelical impulse toward conversion as the essence of religious faith, which Samuel Hill has called the central theme of southern religion. Despite the importance of theology, doctrine, ritual, and morality for southern evangelicals, the experience of God's saving grace is essential. Presley's personal life in the mid-1970s became increasingly tortured, with abuse of prescription drugs the best symbol of a rife that strayed far from the notably ascetic demands of his early Pentecostalism. Presley used religious music as a counterweight in nurturing his private spirituality as well as a tool to influence his fans to appreciate God's goodness. J. D. Sumner, the legendary gospel singer who became his close friend, has said that he thought that Presley, in the last five years of his rife, was returning to his roots in music, to the gospel music that even preceded his rockabilly classics. Sumner suggested that if Presley had rived another six months, he would have become a full-time gospel singer. (20)
Even before then, one can see the centrality of religious music for Presley's spirituality in these last years of his life in the informal jam session caught on film in March 1972 for the documentary Elvis on Tour. Like the Million Dollar Session in 1956, this spontaneous sing-along was spirited and relaxed, showing the ease with which Presley sang gospel music in private. This filmed session reflected others that had long been typical of his quest for quiet moments with the music. Early in his career, while performing on the road with the Louvin Brothers, he sat at the piano and began playing gospel songs, saying, "This is really my favorite kind of music." When he performed on stage, he said, "I do what they want to hear; when I'm back here, I do what I want to do." In his last years of performing, he always wanted the Stamps Quartet to come to his suite after his shows so he could relax by singing gospel music with them all night. At the 1972 jam, he joined in singing old quartet numbers, spirituals, "Nearer My God to Thee" (which goes back to the 1840s), and a 1922 hymn, "Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus." As he said in an interview for the film, gospel music "more or less puts your mind to rest. At least it does mine, since I was two," (21)
Presley's spirituality was also a witness to racial reconciliation. With every gospel album he recorded and with his wide and deep appreciation of black, as well as white, southern gospel music, he extended the biracial musical interaction that had been so obvious in his appreciation of blues and rhythm and blues early in his career. Toward the end of his career, this biracialism became even more pronounced, at least publicly, as he incorporated black gospel singers into his inner circle of backup performers, who increasingly served as his friends and surrogate family, as well as his fellow performers. When Sherman Andrus became the first African American member of the white gospel group the Imperials, which was Presley's backup group during the 1970s, Andrus also became the first black member of a white southern gospel group in general. He recalls warnings to Presley from promoters at a concert in Houston not to have Andrus on stage. Presley's response was not only to include Andrus but to showcase his talents. Andrus recalls Presley's knowledge of black gospel was even greater than his own. Presley also prominently included the Sweet Inspirations, a female black backup group, in his 1970s performances. (22)
By the end of his career, Presley was using music to challenge inherited divisions in the national spirit. His signature concert song of the 1970s was "An American Trilogy," and it evoked a national cultural memory, a civil religion, drawing from and attempting to transcend sentiments rooted in biracial southern antecedents going back to the Civil War. The song combined a mournful, haunting arrangement of the southern Civil War song "Dixie," the slave spiritual "Hush, Little Baby, Don't You Cry," and the Union army anthem, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the latter the background music to William T. Sherman's march through the South. The spirituality here uses the concert stage to challenge listeners to go beyond divisive ideologies and cultural memories. As theologian Tex Sample has noted of his own experience listening to the song, "I am by now struggling with the question of my own identity as a southerner, an American, and a Christian." (23)
Religious music has been a traditional spiritual exercise in the South, one that individuals cultivated privately, at church singings, and in a variety of institutions such as Sacred Harp singings, singing schools, singing conventions, and all-night gospel singings. Preferences in spirituality--including preferences in religious music--need to be seen in relationship to social conditions. As Robert Wuthnow notes, region, race, gender, age, level of education, and religious background can all shape people's embrace of differing spiritual practices, and the spirituality of the South cannot be fully understood outside these contexts. In particular, Elvis Presley's spiritual life, as distinct from his limited role in religious organizations, suggests a rich, white working-class southern spirituality. Presley's experience showed the changes in spirituality in the South as the region modernized and its religious and musical institutions used the technology and promotional techniques of the modern entertainment industry to extend the old-time message of evangelical spirituality.
Samuel Weber's article on spirituality in the South in the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture concludes that in the past three decades, "for many, 'spirituality' has become synonymous with 'finding the true self' and 'unleashing the potential for truth and love,' as well as terms such as 'serenity' and 'peace of heart'." This describes Presley's spiritual questing perfectly. His attraction to the Self-Realization Fellowship in the 1960s represents a new expression of a long journeying that grew out of the intensity of his Pentecostal background and was expressed in his religious music. His embrace of a civil religiosity represented a very public plea for harmony despite the racial and national bitterness growing out of the past. His traditional southern spirituality rested on the hope of redemption, even for a sinner, stemming from a personal relationship with the divine. Elvis's Aunt Lorene recalled that when Elvis was a young boy he disappeared one day, only to return in tears, saying that "he had been talking to Jesus." As the lyric to one of his favorite songs says, Elvis appears to have continued to believe, as his native region did in his lifetime, that "Just a Little Talk with Jesus Gonna Make It Right." (24)
Read More About It
For background on southern gospel music, see James R. Goff Jr., Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel (University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
For background on black gospel, see Kip Lornell, Happy in the Service of the Lord: Afro-American Gospel Quartets in Memphis (University of Illinois Press, 1988).
On Presley and gospel music, see especially Charles Wolfe, "Presley and the Gospel Tradition," Southern Quarterly (1979); and Cheryl Thurber, "Elvis and Gospel Music," Rejoice (1988).
On American spirituality, see Amanda Porterfield, The Transformation of American Religion: The Story of a Late Twentieth-Century Awakening (Oxford University Press, 2001); Leigh Erie Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (HarperCollins, 2005); and Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s (university of California Press, 1998).
This paper was originally delivered at the Organization of American Historians meeting in April 2004. The author thanks the commentators at that session, Charles Joyner and Joel Williamson, for their suggestions.
(1.) Colin Escort, liner notes, Million Dollar Quartet (RCA 1990), 1-3. Peter Guralnick discussed the Million Dollar Session in Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Little Brown, 1994), 365-68.
(2.) Escort, Million Dollar Quartet, 1-3.
(3.) The quote is from Wuthnow, "Spirituality and Spiritual Practice," in The Blackwell Companion to Sociology of Religion, ed. Richard K. Fenn (Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 306.
(4.) Samuel F. Weber, "Spirituality in the South," The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 143. See also Bill Leonard, "Spirituality in America: Signs of the Times," Religion and American Culture (1999).
(5.) "Spirituality," Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. E L. Cross, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1997), 1532. See also Gerald O'Collins and Edward G. Farragia, A Concise Dictionary of Theology (Paulist Press, 2000).
(6.) Charles Wolfe, In Close Harmony: The Story of the Louvin Brothers (University Press of Mississippi, 1996), 3-23.
(7.) Ibid., 65.
(8.) Quote is from Colin Escott, liner notes, Hank Williams (as Luke the Drifter): Beyond the Sunset (Mercury Records, 2001), 2. See also Colin Escott, Hank Williams: The Biography (Little, Brown and Company, 1994), 6-9; and Roger M. Williams, Sing a Sad Song (University of Illinois Press, 1981).
(9.) Elaine Dundes, Gladys and Elvis (Macmillan, 1985), 73, 82 (quote); Charles Wolfe, liner notes, Elvis Presley: Amazing Grace: His Greatest Sacred Performances (RCA Records, 1994), 10. For the importance of the Assemblies of God to Presley, see Van K. Brock, "Assemblies of God: Elvis and Pentecostalism," Bulletin of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and Religion (1979).
(10.) Wolfe liner notes, Elvis Presley, 10 (quote). For the Memphis music context in the 1950s, see Michael T. Bertrand, Race, Rock, and Elvis (University of Illinois Press, 2000).
(11.) He Touched Me: The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley (Coming Home Music, 1999), video (Brewster quote); Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis, 75 (Presley quote about Brewster); Wolfe liner notes, Elvis Presley, 11-12.
(12.) Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis, 47 (quote).
(13.) Jerry Osbourne, Elvis: Word for Word (Harmony Books, 2002), 30, 52-53, 70.
(14.) Peter Guralnick, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little Brown, 1999), 175-77, 195-96, 209, 363.
(15.) See Charles H. Lippy, Being Religious, American Style: A History of Popular Religiosity in the United States (Praeger, 1994), 210-17.
(16.) Guralnick, Careless Love, 222-23 (quotes). For the idea of Presley as a liminal figure in southern popular religion, see Charles Reagan Wilson, Judgment and Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis (University of Georgia Press, 1996), 136, 17. Wolfe liner notes, Elvis Presley, 16-23.
(17.) Wolfe liner notes, Elvis Presley, 16-23.
(18.) Ibid., 24-26.
(19.) He Touched Me, video.
(20.) Charles Wolfe, "Presley and the Gospel Tradition," Southern Quarterly (1979): 148 (quote).
(21.) Wolfe, In Close Harmony, 81 (quote with Louvin Brothers); He Touched Me, video (quote on gospel music). See also Wolfe liner notes, Elvis Presley, 26-28.
(22.) He Touched Me, video. See also Michael T. Bertrand, Race, Rock, and Elvis (University of Illinois Press, 2000).
(23.) Tex Sample, The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World: Electronic Culture and the Gathered People of God (Abingdon Press, 1998), 103.
(24.) Weber, "Spirituality in the South" Vester Presley, as told to Deda Bonura, A Presley Speaks (Wimmer Brothers, 1978), 117; Wuthnow, "Spirituality and Spiritual Practice," 318.…