Cover for BERTRAND: Race, Rock, and Elvis. Click for larger image

Race, Rock, and Elvis

Awards and Recognition:

Winner of the annual Book and Essay Award given by the Shelby County Historical Commission (Memphis, TN), 2001.

How a white take on black sounds revolutionized race relations

In Race, Rock, and Elvis, Michael T. Bertrand contends that popular music, specifically Elvis's brand of rock 'n' roll, helped revise racial attitudes after World War II. Observing that youthful fans of rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, and other black-inspired music seemed more inclined than their segregationist elders to ignore the color line, Bertrand links popular music with a more general relaxation, led by white youths, of the historical denigration of blacks in the South. The tradition of southern racism, successfully communicated to previous generations, failed for the first time when confronted with the demand for rock 'n' roll by a new, national, commercialized youth culture.

In a narrative peppered with the colorful observations of ordinary southerners, Bertrand argues that appreciating black music made possible a new recognition of blacks as fellow human beings. Bertrand documents black enthusiasm for Elvis and cites the racially mixed audiences that flocked to the new music at a time when adults expected separate performances for black and white audiences. He describes the critical role of radio and recordings in blurring the color line and notes that these media made black culture available to appreciative whites on an unprecedented scale. He also shows how music was used to define and express the values of a southern working-class youth culture in transition, as young whites, many of them trying to orient themselves in an unfamiliar urban setting, embraced black music and culture as a means of identifying themselves.

By adding rock 'n' roll to the mix of factors that fed into civil rights advances in the South, Race, Rock, and Elvis shows how the music, with its rituals and vehicles, symbolized the vast potential for racial accord inherent in postwar society.

"It was teenagers who bought Elvis Presley's records, in enormous numbers. And Michael T. Bertrand's convincingly argues that the black-and-white character of the sound, as well as Elvis's own persona, helped to relax the rigid color line and thereby fed the fires of the civil rights movement. . . . A sobering lesson for historians who scoff at popular culture (and the oral testimony that peppers the book) as trivia for the tenured."--Karal Ann Marling, American Historical Review

"Bertrand has managed to argue more cogently and with more evidential authority than any previous commentator that the music that Elvis Presley and his rockabilly cousins fashioned in the South in the 1950s represented a serious threat to various national and regional social conventions, particularly those relating to race, class, and gender."--Brian Ward, The Journal of American History

"Meticulous research and elegant, concise prose. . . . Bertrand has written an insightful book that both deepens our understanding of rock 'n' roll and makes significant contributions to musical studies, Southern history, and the history of the civil rights movement. . . . Would make an excellent book for adoption in undergraduate and graduate history courses, as its provocative arguments and fascinating anecdotes are sure to spark lively classroom discussions."--Patrick Huber, History

"Convincingly argues that the black-and-white character of the sound, as well as Elvis's own persona, helped to relax the rigid color line and thereby fed the fires of the civil rights movement."--Karal Ann Marling, American Historical Review

"Thoroughly readable and redemptive. . . . The story of American music is, after all, as complex as the story of the country itself, and yet Betrand covers most bases with impressive ease. His major contribution, however, is a measured assessment of how rock 'n' roll . . . really did change the seemingly unchangeable place of its birth."--John Kelly, The Irish Times

"[Bertrand's] arguments are always persuasive and his lines of reasoning clear. . . . The book is cleanly written, well annotated and involving. . . . A thoroughly absorbing piece of work."--Keith Briggs, Blues and Rhythm

"A major contribution to our knowledge of the cultural importance of early rock and roll."--Craig Morrison, Journal of American Folklore

"An ambitious exploration of the relationship between cultural and political change in the South in the crucial years after World War II. This book will encourage everyone to rethink the role played by rock 'n' roll in American life."--Bill Malone, author of Country Music, U.S.A.

"Michael Bertrand aims to prove that rock 'n' roll contributed to the success of the civil rights movement by breaking down the generational transmission of traditional southern attitudes toward race. Indeed, as he argues, the attraction for young white southerners of rhythm & blues initially and rock 'n' roll eventually had enormous cultural and political consequences."--James M. Salem, author of The Late Great Johnny Ace and the Transition from R&B to Rock 'n' Roll

Michael T. Bertrand is an assistant professor of history at Tennessee State University.

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