ELVIS WAS A VET

Elvis vet

People were expecting me to mess up, to goof up in one way or another.  They thought I couldn’t take it and so forth, and I was determined to go to any limits to prove otherwise, not only to the people who were wondering, but to myself.” Elvis Presley

Elvis served in the US Army from March 1958 until March 1960. Since he was a world-famous entertainer he was offered the option to go into Special Services, but he chose to enlist as a regular soldier. He was in training when his mother became so ill that he was sent from Fort Hood to her bedside in Memphis, so he was with her when she died August 14, 1958. Some say Elvis was never the same after Gladys’ death.

The photos of Elvis being inducted show a happy guy going through the usual process that all the guys went through: getting his hair cut (!!!), having the medical examination, being issued his Army fatigues. But people close to him say he was scared to death of the Army.

Stationed in Germany, to a tank brigade, Elvis adjusted to the rigors of Army life, getting up early (He was NEVER an early riser in any other time of his life), reporting for duty as required, pitching in without complaint as “one of the guys.” There are NO Army tales of Elvis taking advantage of his fame to avoid either chores or assignments. Like many GIs he did make a few trips to Paris for the night life. These are the only times Elvis ever visited Europe. He never performed there; the Colonel forbade him to perform at all while he was in the armed services, since he couldn’t be paid.

E’s Grandmother Dodger went along to Germany, as did his father Vernon. He didn’t live on base; he rented his own house where he could have musical evenings to break the monotony of service life (and food). But he was homesick. Charlie Hodge, who became a lifelong friend and member of the Memphis Mafia, joined Elvis for musical evenings. Elvis met the fourteen-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu while he was stationed in Friedberg, West Germany, but she wasn’t the only  gal he flirted with during those two years.

Elvis started using amphetamines while he was in the Army. As they were “legal,” he welcomed the energy they provided, so he could rise early and stay up late. They were one bad habit he started during this time that never left him.

The fear that he’d be forgotten after two years in the Army was clearly unfounded. Elvis was mobbed when he returned in a snowstorm on March 3, 1960. The screaming crowd at McGuire Air Force Base made it seem as though he’d never left. But Elvis served his country; he was discharged as a Sergeant, and he earned the Army Good Conduct Medal. It’s an important part of his story: Elvis was a vet.

“ELVIS AT 3 IS A ANGEL TO ME”

Angels, demons, spirits, wizards, gods and witches have peppered folk religions since mankind first started telling stories.”  Robin Marantz Henig

Finster Elvis

When John and I visited Howard Finster around late 1989, early 1990, he was learning to use a computer. He would’ve been 73. One of the universities had sent a desktop, a printer, and a computer instructor to see if he’d be interested in trying to use it with his art. Finster had by then done numerous college presentations, been on Johnny Carson (Johnny couldn’t get a word in), and designed an album cover for REM and one for the Talking Heads.

Finster called himself a “man of vision.” He said the Lord revealed to him in a thumbprint of bicycle paint that he was to use his talent to spread the word of God. The “vision” told him to “paint sacred art.”

Oddly enough, we’d learned about Finster at Ann and Boo Oppenhimer’s home, looking at a slide show they’d made of Finster’s Paradise Garden outside Summerville, Georgia. They were showing a slide of a huge angel mounted on a fence, her hundreds of wings labelled with artists’ names written in by Finster. I asked them to stop the show, went up to one feather, and pointed to John’s name. That’s the nearest I’ve ever come to a revelation. In any case, John’s name really was on that feather. And Howard Finster really had painted it. We’d never heard of him before that night.

That day we visited Howard Finster John couldn’t stay in the room with him, his talking was so incessant. I remember Finster saying that “Money’s not the root of all evil. No sir. It’s the LOVE of money that causes evil.” While he smoked a cigarette, demonstrated his point with a wad of money, and lounged on a daybed, tired of his computer lesson for the day.

We purchased a “cutout” of Elvis and another of a Coke Bottle. Elvis is in our bedroom, where I see him every morning. Finster’s text says “Elvis at 3 is a angel to me. By Howard Finster. From God. Man of Visions. 12.000.439 works since 1976. Now Nov. 18. 1989. 10:30 PM: God bless you all.” He sent Elvis out into the world to spread his love of God and the promise of blessings. I’ve always been pleased I selected Elvis Angel.

John chose the Coke Bottle. It’s obsessively covered with angels and stars and sayings in favor of Coke, as well as the faces of unheard-of prophets who spoke to Finster like Babcog and Chimox. Finster advises that “Millions of church folks drink Coca Cola and drive home very safely.”

Part of Paradise Garden is installed in Atlanta’s High Museum. The Library of Congress owns four paintings. This visionary, with no more than a sixth-grade education, achieved his goal of preaching “the good news” to the masses. He certainly touched my life.

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NB: Ann and Boo Oppenhimer introduced John and me to the amazing world of folk art and folk artists. Many of them, like Finster, used their art as a means of preaching. James Harold Jennings believed in the Angel Aeon and hated bullies. Sister Gertrude Morgan was called to warn the world about the Revelation in the Bible with her Black Angel. More blogs to come on this topic!

ED AMBROSE: American Folk Artist

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Real popular culture is folk art – coalminers’ songs and so forth.Noam Chomsky

Chomsky nails it—much of contemporary folk art is like pop culture, a coalminer’s song. I love that metaphor. I’d been floundering around for how to describe Ed Ambrose’s work, and Chomsky, of course, finds “le mot juste.”

John and I drove to Stephens City, Virginia, a number of times to visit Ed Ambrose. Unlike many of the other folk artists we met, like Abe Criss and Clyde Jones, Ed worked a regular nine to five job and valued education. He claimed he’d wanted to go to art school—the Corcoran, to be specific—but hard times hit and he became a working man. If I remember correctly Ed demolished houses. We have a Santa Claus head that he made from a wooden mantel he salvaged.

We purchased a number of his pieces at modest prices. Ed had a workshop “out back,” in what was a small shed. He carved his figures and painted them and sold them. He was happy for the recognition. I wish I’d saved the features I wrote for The Folk Art Messenger. That time of my life was so crowded: working full-time as an educator, raising three teenagers and a toddler, encouraging my husband in his busy career as an artist. We loved our folk art adventures, but I wasn’t savvy enough to maintain a personal history of my writing at the time. This was pre-MFA. My work on the Folk Art Society Board was an act of love and enthusiasm, not any aspect of what I viewed as a potential career. So all those interviews and reviews are lost to me.

Elvis is still my favorite Ed Ambrose carving. This is the late 1980s, well before the notion of writing a novel centered around three women whose lives intersect with Elvis. But who knows how seeds are planted. And the Chicken George figure is dear. Ed watched the televised series Roots and made Chicken George as a consequence. We asked him to carve us in our ten-year-anniversary finery. The resulting commissions of me and John are treasures, him in his top hat, me raising a glass. Like most folk artists the intent isn’t photo realism, it’s essence. Ed Ambrose nails essence.

We love our folk art collection, but I love the stories and memories almost as much as I love the individual pieces. They’re like holding those memories in my hands.

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ART AS STARING

Bill Traylor drawing

Drawing by folk artist Bill Traylor

To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” Akira Korasawa

I’ve long used this observation by famed director and screenwriter Korasawa with writing students, to encourage them to be honest and unflinching.

Writing guru Natalie Goldberg calls it “Writing Down the Bones.” She says, “Never underestimate people. They do desire the cut of truth.” Readers and viewers want honesty, truth, the glare from unflinching eyes that the best writers and artists provide.

I read all the time, through all of life’s challenges. I can’t say I’m particularly “choosy” (an adjective my family uses that says a lot for me), but I do have authors I return to time and again because I know they will engage me and shake me up and force me to look and listen and think.

Joyce Carol Oates is one of those writers. She never “underestimates people.” And dang if she didn’t just give me the rattles with “My Life As A Rat.” Young Violet Rue is the “baby” in a big Catholic family of seven children and a marginalized mom. She observes. She watches. She listens. She doesn’t talk all that much. What she sees and hears and finally, after being wounded, reveals, changes the family forever.

Wow. Sounds like power, but it’s the opposite. It’s powerlessness. And that’s not enough for Oates. What happens to an observant girl-child who’s silenced? It’s not pretty. And she takes us there.

Oates stares. And has the facility with words to take us there. Like Kurasawa with movies.

John and I collect art, works that we can stare at any number of times without sensing that we’ve “seen it all.” We were on the board of the Folk Art Society for years, and we were fortunate, then, to be able to meet and interview folk artists. Howard Finster—“it’s the love of money, not money itself, that corrupts.” I’ve always remembered that. And Clyde Jones and his Haw River Animal Crossing: “Baryshnikov, he didn’t need one of my animals.” But he gave our daughter Miranda one. Vollis Simpson and his amazing wind machines, and Vernon Burwell with his cement and rebar people and animals. These artists stared, too, but mostly at whatever they were seeing inside their mind’s eye or hearing with their hearts instead of their ears. People call their work primitive, unschooled. I’m dazzled by such individual vision that isn’t corrupted by any need to meet some artificial societal standard.

We saw a show of Bill Traylor’s work this spring at the Smithsonian. Born into slavery, Traylor drew on the streets of Montgomery for the last ten years of his life. His drawings have a power that’s difficult to describe: menacing for the most part, detailing human interactions that often involve power and control and fear. What did Traylor see on the busy city streets in the 40s? Some of the drawings were celebratory, too—dancing and prancing on the streets on Saturday nights. His own intense vision, simple on the surface, but visionary and alive and intense.

I guess that’s what the lasting art, writing, and movies do for us: provide an intense experience that connects us to our own vision, our own longings and searches. We can’t avert our eyes.

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ART AS CONSPIRACY

“I’ve never seen music as a competition. It’s a conspiracy. The word ‘conspiros,’ from the Greek, means to breathe together.”   Linda Ronstadt in interview with Jim Farber of the New York Times

Full disclosure: I’ve loved Linda Ronstadt’s music since I first heard her sing “Different Drum” way back when

John and I went to see “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” this week, and I was spellbound, uplifted, and heartbroken. Seeing footage of Ronstadt performing in venues from folky coffeehouses in LA to huge stadiums she filled as a rocker to the Broadway stage was a treat. She could do it all. Watching her, in the final clip, harmonize with family while acknowledging the limitations of Parkinson’s disease closed my throat and made me cheer all at the same time.

Mostly, though, I was engaged by how complicated this performer I followed for forty-plus years is and was. She sang the song “I Never Will Marry” with Johnny Cash—but I didn’t know about her long-standing personal philosophical thoughts against marrying, herself. She made the album Trio with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, but I didn’t realize that she had strong feminist views about women and art and collaboration. She made the album Canciones di Mi Padre in love and honor of her Mexican heritage, but I had no idea her record producer and manager were opposed to what they saw as a career-killing venture when she insisted on doing it.

Ronstadt was the ultimate “conspirator,” from early performances with two of her siblings through the LA days with the Stone Poneys to later productions with full Mariarchi bands. My admiration for her grew as I watched this documentary; I don’t think I could love her music any more than I already love it, but I gained considerable admiration for her wisdom and self-determination.

This observation of hers, that art is “conspiratorial” rather than competitive, is food for thought. As a writer I have felt embraced by many other writers, from my colleagues in my MFA program, like Laura Hartman and Sheri Reynolds, to my Nimrod writer friend and mentor Cathryn Hankla, to my writing group mainstays Jane Goette and Mindy Quigley. They have breathed into and with me. As we “conspire” they make me a stronger writer, and along the way that helps make me a better person, too.

One woman, one documentary, a multitude of impressions and connections and considerations. I’m grateful Linda Ronstadt is in my life. I’ll be cheering when she’s rightly recognized for her lifetime artistic contributions this December as a Kennedy Center Honoree.

“DON’T GET ABOVE YOUR RAISING”

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“It rose up out of nothing, uneducated, from the soul . . . and came into what it is, which is probably never been anything like it, and there’ll never be anything like it again.” Merle Haggard, Episode 8, Ken Burns’ Country Music.

Haggard was talking about Country Music, but he could’ve been talking about Elvis Presley. E’s parents were uneducated, but they were hardworking, devoted parents who kept close rein on their only child. While Elvis had a high school education, he became more of an autodidact, reading philosophy and mysticism and seeking self-discipline through Karate.

He sprung from that “complicated” culture that created Country Music and blues and rock and roll but never forgot its gospel underpinnings. Neither did Elvis. Till the end of his life gospel was his favorite. In the seventies he would sometimes end his concerts with “How Great Thou Art.” Still, the last song he sang the night of his death was country, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Known as the King of Rock, Elvis was the ultimate amalgam of American music.

Burns titled Episode 8 “Don’t get above your raising,” and ended his dynamic series blending the old and the young, the country classics and the country outlaws, the merging and mélange that is America at its best. Merle and Dolly and Willie; Rhiannon and Ketch and Allison Krauss. One of my favorite stills: Willie Nelson and Ray Charles singing together, both beaming in a way that can’t be pasted on. What DNA linked them, besides the South and the West? Their connection to the land and people and hope and dreams of their upbringing, their raising.

Many of the country stars, like Elvis, became outrageously wealthy. Gladys was terrified that if Elvis became a star he would be seduced “above his raising.” Sadly, ironically, that’s one reason Vernon trusted Colonel Parker; he was an outsider, up from the people, like the Presleys. It wasn’t Hollywood that destroyed Elvis; famous directors wanted to work with him, but Parker wouldn’t allow it. Again, the “bubble,” his Memphis Mafia, kept Elvis from any real connection with other country musicians or rock stars. Early on he was in shows with Johnny Cash, but they never became confidantes. Both men went through the crucible of wealth and fame and “pain killers”: Johnny survived all that, but Elvis didn’t.

Look at Dolly Parton. As she recounts herself in the series, her rise from holler to international star never took the “country” out of “the girl,” because she was proud of those dirt poor roots and stayed connected. Identified as “The Most Successful Female Country Artist in History,” she lives in Tennessee still, married to the same man her entire adult life, with little emphasis on her private life. Unlike Elvis, she developed her business brain and kept close control of her contracts once she had the grit to break away from Porter Wagonner. While Elvis always called Memphis home, he turned his business dealings over to his father and the Colonel, thinking those “down home” people could be trusted. He paid dearly for that innocence. It’s not that HE “got above his raising.” Tom Parker used that lack of business savvy, from his impoverished background, to make him a marketing product. Elvis loved his “raising” and was devoted to his family his entire life.

Burns concludes that the story of Country Music is complicated, like America is complicated. Music is a way of celebrating that “raising” in all its complexity. Ketch Secor describes it this way: “the songs of the people, the hopes and expectations of the people, that pain and suffering of the people, that needs to be embedded in Country Music.”

Emmylou Harris, an important thread in the quilt of female country voices, who CHOSE to be a country singer rather than a folkie, says, “It’s always going to be connected to the past, but you don’t want to stay there. You never step into the same river twice. Music has to change, too.”

Rhiannon Giddens, one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, says, “This is our voice, and this is our music, telling the stories of those people who don’t have that voice, and they hear that song and they’re like, that’s my story.”

Country singers embrace their “raising” and convey it in the stories and songs. Their voices echo the hills and honky tonks the juke joints and churches, the hollers and the ranges. Marty Stuart concludes the amazing series with this wise observation and invitation: “Country music has something for everybody. It’s inside the songs. It’s inside the lives of their characters. It’s really colorful in here. I invite you in.”

 

“UP TO THE MOUNTAIN”

Charles cover ModernSoundsInC&WMusic (Cover from Wikipedia)

“Our music is always striving to the best thing, and the best thing is the mix, you know, it always is. You have these two things . . . the strength multiplies.” Rhiannon Giddens, a founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

My friend Mike Greenwood has a birthday today, and he sent me and John a YouTube video of Patty Griffin singing “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song).” This country/folk/gospel/rock singer/songwriter wrote this in response to Martin Luther King’s final speech, where he says, “the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

Martin Luther King was advocating peaceful resistance to racial bias and its impact in the workplace the night before he was assassinated. He encouraged Memphis citizens to boycott products from companies that kept workers in economic bondage. But he celebrated the opportunity to “see the stars” and engendered confidence that better opportunities were in the near future.

Watching the fourth episode of Ken Brns’ Country Music, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” I was struck again how the “mix” of country music and “race music” and gospel and folk have strengthened the music and connected us culturally, as Rhiannon Giddens says. She’s one of the young moderators for the Burns’ series, convincing as she conveys her enthusiasm for music history and its diverse cultural legacy while being an exemplar, herself.

Much has been made of Elvis’ immersion in R&B and its lasting impact on his music style and song choices. I was less aware of the power of Ray Charles “borrowing” from country music. Willie Nelson said “Ray Charles did more for country music than any one artist has done” when he recorded his Country album “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” His album went to Number 1 on the R & B charts, highlighting the way “crossover” music multiplies the strength and power of all its contributing genres.

According to Doug Freeman of the Austin Chronicle, “With his 1962 Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Ray Charles created the benchmark for crossing the line, highlighting the similarities in sentiment often overshadowed by sound.” Whether the listeners’ experience was rural poor, urban black, or just down and out, the music reflected the shared reality that they were tempered by hardship, often taunted as outsiders, and hungry for connection. The music provides that connection.

I’d been excited about Episode 4 of Country Music because it “caught up” to the performers that lived with me, on radio and tv, while I was a teen and young adult: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline, Ray Charles. That was great. But what touched me more deeply was this recognition of the music transcending race and social silos and connecting us and our better angels.

“ , , , the best thing is the mix.” The music shows us that. Watching the Ken Burns series, listening to legacy performers like Patty Griffin, celebrating the diversity that’s best among us—these are ways of going to the mountaintop, seeking the stars, and striving to ennoble that merging of what’s best about America, whether it’s music or art or people.

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