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. …