“In the Ghetto”
Artist: Elvis Presley
Writer: Mac Davis
“‘In The Ghetto’ was not without its own troubles….the song’s political content (gentle, almost vapid by today’s standards) unnerved some of Elvis’ friends…” (Robert Gordon and Tara McAdams. Source: Liner notes to From Elvis In Memphis Legacy Edition, 2009)
Elvis Presley’s monumental comeback in the late sixties has been parsed a thousand ways. He was restless after a decade of lifeless movies and dead-end soundtracks. He realized his career was at stake and decided he better get off his lazy hillbilly bottom and crank it up one more time. The Colonel let him out of the Zombie Pad on a twenty-four month pass. He had a cold. Steve Binder (the ’68 Comeback Special’s admittedly wonderful producer) caught him in a good mood and used some clever voodoo to get him interested again.
The moon was about to be in the seventh house and Jupiter was about to align with Mars.
I’m paraphrasing, of course.
There’s no point in digging up the exact quotes. They’re too familiar to those who know the Elvis Narrative to be worth repeating and too lazy and haphazard to be worth dignifying for those who don’t.
The basic drill is the usual one: If Elvis did anything so transcendent that it can’t quite be denied, we must rest eternally reassured that he was the last person responsible for it.
The way “In the Ghetto” has been generally handled–as a subset of the 1969 Memphis sessions–is typical.
It’s ignored. Or it’s sidelined. It’s good but it’s not….important! Maybe as a piece of the overall moment, but not for itself.
It’s “gentle, almost vapid by today’s standards,” and Elvis really, really had to be talked into recording it even so. (Read: “Whatever he meant by it, don’t worry, because he didn’t really mean anything.”)
I guess I’ll have to say I beg to differ.
Recording and releasing “In the Ghetto” in the early months of 1969 may have constituted the single most important series of decisions in Elvis Presley’s career.
I know nearly everyone who is old enough to remember that particular year has been trying to embalm it ever since–it’s a dread, apocalyptic moment for some, a moment-when-all-things-seemed-possible happy pill for others and one state of denial is just about as thorough (and delusional) as another.
It’s useful, I think, to try and view it from Elvis’ perspective.
I know this requires taking liberties. Elvis probably held his views about art, politics and the world in general closer to the vest than any artist in his century who had both a legitimate claim to the last level of greatness and a fair opportunity to share what he thought about it all if he so desired.
So we don’t know much of what he was really feeling–even quotes we can trust to be accurate carry little real weight or context because Elvis was a lot of things to a lot of people, including the people closest to him and trying to guess who really “got” him at any given moment is a fool’s errand.
But at least some things can be rationally assumed. Perhaps the most important is that, circa the late sixties, Elvis had kept himself in the game–something that ought to give pause to those who off-handedly dismiss his movie career.
The brief revivalist period of the early seventies, when Chuck Berry and Rick Nelson could have big hits (well, one apiece anyway), was still several years off–and would owe a great deal to Elvis’ own resurgence in any case.
The Everly Brothers had released Roots, one of the great albums of the century, the year before and got exactly nowhere with it.
Ray Charles was becoming best known as a regular guest on TV variety shows, and was already three and half years removed from the last top ten Pop hit of his career.
Bo Diddley was twenty years away from the Nike commercials that would give his nightly performance fee its one remaining bump.
Jerry Lee Lewis was a rather safe, successful mainstream country act and, despite his own far-reaching network variety show, so was Johnny Cash.
Brenda Lee wasn’t even that (though she would have a comeback on the country charts in the seventies).
Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke were dead.
James Brown was still relevant, but he had only really broken through to the commercial mainstream in the mid-sixties and wouldn’t really stay there much longer.
Within a few months, on the occasion of his epic Vegas opening, Elvis himself would grab fellow headliner Fats Domino–by then even further marginalized than most of the others–and introduce him as “the real king of rock and roll,” a pronouncement that was met with bafflement by the press corps at the time and has, along with dozens of other similarly expressed sentiments, been dropped down the memory hole by those bent on propagating a certain narrative ever since.
Compared to every single one of his important contemporaries, then, Elvis was in decent shape. He was on the sidelines while they were in the cheap seats on their way to being ushered quickly and quietly to the parking lot.
Compared to the giants who had come to the fore as his contemporaries faded, however, he was nowhere. They were engaged, he was distant. They were speaking to the times, he was a thing of the past. They were making the music “relevant,” he was the symbol of a phase that had to be passed through (rock ’n’ roll, the fifties) before the really important stuff (Rock, The Sixties) could happen.
They were the Beatles and the Stones and Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin and the Who and the Doors.
He was the ghost they–or at least the times–had transcended and kicked to the curb.
Then, in the summer of 1968–using a TV Christmas special that would air in December as his medium–he had “re-engaged” and voila! all that was swept away.
* * * *
Any serious student of Elvis Presley’s music knows this is a grossly oversimplified narrative. Elvis’ music career had been running on dual tracks ever since he left the army in the spring of 1960. This isn’t the place to discuss that journey in depth, but suffice it to say, the music he made in the Comeback Special and the subsequent Memphis sessions that produced “In the Ghetto” did not spring from a vacuum (I would recommend a close listen to “It Hurts Me,” from 1964 and his gospel sessions from 1966 as easy proof, though that still only scratches the surface).
Still, there was one place Elvis certainly had not gone and that was into the arena of topical protest music.
Again, it’s easy to oversimplify this. The notion of truly popular, overtly political “protest” music–not the working-man blues variety that was a staple of virtually every popular genre but rather issue-specific material that not only lamented injustice but suggested real possibilities of challenge and change–had been around forever. But it had actually only come to fruition in the folk movement of the early sixties (mostly with the dual emergence of the much-lauded songwriting of Bob Dylan and the seldom fully appreciated singing of Peter, Paul and Mary which actually put it on the charts). Great as some of that music was, by the late sixties topical music had more or less broken down into a handful of basic categories: pleas for universal tolerance and brotherhood, depictions of social unrest or injustice (usually racial), war protest.
What was seldom addressed–and what remained essentially unspoken on records meant to compete for high positions on the Pop charts–was any condemnation of the kind of cruel, cyclical, working-class poverty in which Elvis himself had been born and raised.
And, since there was no role model for this kind of protest record having any kind of commercial success, it’s worth taking an extra-hard look at just where Elvis’ career stood at the moment it showed up on his radar.
* * * *
Yes, the Comeback Special had been a triumph. Yes, the TV show’s first single “If I Can Dream,” had been a big (though not monumental) hit–reaching #12 on the Pop chart.
But the second release, “Memories,” got only to #35, not much better than average for Presley’s post 1965 singles.
Hence, the first single release from the Memphis Sessions was a huge decision.
If it didn’t meet or exceed the success of “If I Can Dream,” then the momentum built by the critical and ratings success of the television special would be effectively broken–Elvis would run the very real risk of finding himself back on the sidelines for good.
Looking back now, it’s very easy to see the remaining arc of Presley’s career from 1968 onward as a series of successful assaults on one citadel after another: Christmas special-dom, the Top 40, Vegas, Madison Square Garden, Global-concert-via-satellite and, finally, the Pearly Gates all falling down like dominoes.
Where it all might have gone if the first single from the Memphis Sessions had flopped–or even just done moderately well–is pure speculation.
My own best guess is that it probably would have gone just about the same.
But the important thing to remember is that Elvis could not make any such safe assumptions.
For all he knew–even with a string of what, with benefit of hindsight, we know were surefire hits and permanent radio staples in the can (“Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Cry Daddy,” “Kentucky Rain”)–that first release might make or break his future.
Was he going to get back in the game or be unceremoniously benched? Was he going to regain the throne, or spend the rest of his career swapping variety show bills with Ray Charles or “back to the country” tours with Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash?
Those possibilities may seem absurd now, but they must have seemed very real to Elvis in the early months of 1969 when he made–or at least approved–the decision to release “In the Ghetto” as his next single.
* * * *
Before I talk about the record itself, I’ll cast my own memory back.
I don’t remember a whole lot specifically about 1969. I was eight years old. But I remember the period.
I remember the general atmosphere in the working class South throughout the late sixties and early seventies.
I remember school bus rides and backyard football games and lunchroom breaks where the boys’ talk occasionally got around to “who your parents voted for” in both the ‘68 and ‘72 elections.
I’m not saying it was an everyday occurrence. Hardly. But once, maybe twice a year, something or other brought it up.
So I can tell you this: I was always in the small minority of those who had to admit his parents voted for Nixon.
And what this mostly met with was not so much hostility or scorn as puzzlement.
The ten or twelve or fourteen-year-old boys I went to school with and played pick-up football with in seventy and seventy-one and seventy-two didn’t especially have anything against Richard Nixon. They had heard he wasn’t so bad. But they really didn’t understand why any white person would vote for anybody but George Wallace.
I mean, didn’t my parents know that Wallace had promised to send all the black people back to Africa? (And no, they didn’t say “black people.”)
Truth be told, I have no idea to this day what George Wallace promised in the ’68 or ’72 campaigns. It’s just one of those things I never got around to looking up.
But I know what the kids I rode buses with and ate lunch with and kicked the football around with thought he had promised. And, since I know how right they thought George Wallace was to make this promise, I know how right their parents thought he was, too.
So I also know this: For the most famous Southern white man since George Washington, to pull “In the Ghetto” out of his demo-pile in 1969 and spend twenty-three takes getting it right (more than twice his usual–for comparison with a couple of other big hits from the same sessions: “Suspicious Minds” took eight takes, “Kentucky Rain” ten) and then approve its release as a potential make-or-break single at one of the most crucial points of his career, meant something.
What it meant to history and the world at large, can be debated eternally.
But for what it meant to Elvis, I think all we need to do is listen.
* * * *
Backing up the statement at the top of this post, Elvis’ most assiduous biographer, Peter Guralnick, has called Mac Davis’ lyric “abstract, almost fairy tale” in form, while also suggesting that concerns with “the inevitable consequences of ghetto poverty and societal indifference and pleading for compassion for black youth…may well seem mild today.”
Actually such sentiments are more like nonexistent today and Davis’ lyric would be better described as trenchant and prophetic.
“Take a look at you and me,” Elvis sang in 1969, “are we too blind to see? Or do we simply turn our heads and look the other way?”
You couldn’t come up with a better description of America over the last forty years than a nation learning to turn its head and look the other way….and not just at poverty.
The Chicago streets that Davis–like Elvis, a southern white man raised breathing Pentecostal air–described so “mildly,” “abstractly,” “almost vapidly” are presently sufficiently awash in murder that it’s actually news.
And, hey, given the normal All-American murder rates that’s saying something.
But Elvis’ version of “In the Ghetto” doesn’t draw its last measure of power from its relevance to the headlines of 1969 or yesterday.
It still rings deep and true because, for all the master touches of what were then pop fundamentals–the quiet shine of the acoustic guitar, the soulful female backing chorus, the ominous, martial drumming at the close–Presley’s vocal cuts too close to the bone to be hemmed in by the hit-making standards of any particular period, even one as great at the late-sixties.
Let’s be honest. Protest lyrics date, even great ones like “In the Ghetto.” They date even if the underlying message does not.
Production methods date.
So do instrumental styles and fashions in soulful female choruses.
The only thing that doesn’t date are the great voices.
For all its broad, political portent, “In the Ghetto” was probably as personal for Elvis Presley as a confessional. Think what it meant for the boy, born in poverty himself, who had been walked to school by his own mother until he was a teenager, to contemplate a woman so destitute she can only dread the arrival of “another hungry mouth to feed,” and you can readily understand Elvis’ almost impossible commitment to nuance–his determination to make the connection complete.
Nowhere else did he draw on his always carefully parceled “southernisms” more adroitly or effectively. Over and over, for this performance as for virtually no other, he used the common language of blacks and working-class white southerners–“Mum-ma” for “mama,” the very slightly elongated “i” in chi-ld, the hard accent on the second syllable in “get-toe”–to draw the scenes of a northern ghetto closer and closer to himself and, by extension, to an audience–a very specific part of his audience–which certainly included at least some of the parents of the boys who thought it was weird my parents didn’t vote for George Wallace.
In a time and place where the word “ghetto” had long since been appropriated from its European origins and given the singular meaning it still retains for middle-class Americans–a place where poor blacks are kept separate from everybody else by any means necessary–the boy from the Tupelo shotgun shack by way of the Memphis housing projects took his sweet time and, without yielding to even a trace of false piety or self-righteous anger, wrung every last bit of meaning from a lyric that was closer to biblical parable than “fairy tale.”
The world’s a complicated place, of course. We shouldn’t forget that Elvis would eventually offer to hire a hit-man to take out George Wallace’s would-be assassin only to have Wallace gently rebuff him in the name of Christian forgiveness. We also shouldn’t forget that Elvis probably left a few fatherless, potentially “angry” young children roaming the earth himself.
But the thing about art is that it does offer an opportunity for transcendence.
In the moment when it counted–the moment when both the artist and the man had the most to lose–Elvis kept the deepest faith by very specifically picking up a song by a then little-known writer and putting the blame for the link between a child whose “hunger burns” and “an angry young man, face down on the street with a gun in his hand,” right where the now thoroughly neglected New Testament he had been raised on said it belonged.
On those too blind to see.
I don’t know if there will ever be a time when the world can’t use a little more of that, but I’m pretty sure we’re not there yet.