Mississippi Rebels: Elvis Presley, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the South's Culture of Religious Music

Article excerpt

In December 1956, during an open-microphone jam session at Memphis' Sun Studios, a gathering that became known as the Million Dollar Session, Elvis Presley sang an old religious song, "Just a Little Talk with Jesus." The lyric tells of the narrator who was "lost in sin," but when "Jesus took me in," he was redeemed from sin. The result of salvation was an image of soul illumination, as the lyric says "a little light from heaven" filled his soul. The narrator confesses to his "doubts and fears" and realizes that in life "your eyes be filled with tears," but still "my Jesus is a friend who watches day and night." In the end, "just a little talk with Jesus gonna make it right." The setting for the singing of this religious song was a modern commercial one-the recording studio of Sam Phillips, an ambitious record industry businessman. Elvis had just completed a year during which this child of poverty experienced extraordinary success, selling millions of records and becoming a national celebrity, far from his small town Mississippi upbringing in Tupelo (Escott 1-3; Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis 365-68).

That day in Memphis included impromptu singing and conversation among Presley, Phillips, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and a few others. They were all Southerners-Presley from Mississippi, Perkins from west Tennessee, Lewis from Louisiana, Cash from eastern Arkansas, and Phillips from Alabama. They knew a common body of popular music including songs by Dean Martin, country singers like Hank Snow and Bill Monroe, bluesmen like Arthur Crudup and Big Bill Broonzy, and rock and rollers like Chuck Berry and Pat Boone. But many of the songs were gospel songs, such as "When God Dips His Love in My Heart," "Peace in the Valley," and "On the Jericho Road." Several other songs were about Jesus, such as "Jesus Walked that Lonesome Valley" and "Blessed Jesus (Hold My Hand)" (Wilson 75-76).

Almost seven years later, in August 1962, another Mississippian, Fannie Lou Hamer, sang the same song, "Just a Little Talk with Jesus," on a bus coming back from the courthouse in Indianola, in Sunflower County, after her failed first attempt to register to vote. The setting could not have been more different from that of the Million Dollar Session at Sun Studio, and Hamer and Presley at first seem an unlikely pair to juxtapose. But the song united them, and it prompts our attention to these two central figures in the profound social and cultural revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, to the context of time and place that framed their singing of the song, and to the role of a biracial culture of religious songs in the South. The songwriter, Clevant Derricks, will be an important figure to consider, as well as the long history of popular religious music in the South.

Hamer was a sharecropper, from a line of farm workers going back to slavery. She was as powerless as possible in the postwar United States, but in the summer of 1962 she caught a ray of hope from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists who appeared in Sunflower County to promote voter registration. She attended a meeting at Williams Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and heard a stirring sermon by the Reverend James Bevel entitled "Discerning the Signs of the Time," based on a Biblical passage, Luke 12:54. Hamer responded to this call for discernment, intuitively feeling the possibility of change in what had long appeared a hopeless situation for blacks in the Delta. "I could just see myself voting people outa office that I know was wrong and didn't do nothin' to help the poor," she said (Lee 24). During the meeting, Hamer found inspiration in the freedom songs that SNCC had made a part of their rallies. The freedom songs inspired people to action through their visionary lyrics that suggested the dawning of a new society. They were both sacred and secular, including "We Shall Overcome," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," and the song that became identified with Hamer, "This Little Light of Mine. …