Well, this is odd. I never liked Elvis, not one little bit. By the time I was entering adolescence he was already well into his Vegas self-parody phase, and the sight of him bloating up and bursting out of those preposterous one-piece sequinned jumpers he favoured made me seethe at the idiots who idolized him. Like Sinatra, he may have been an occasionally gifted interpreter of material, when he chose wisely, but he wasn’t a writer, and he didn’t even play an instrument, really (though he was sometimes seen hanging on to a guitar, as pictured above), and sorry, but that just doesn’t cut it. His sneering intonation, and his typically overcooked delivery, left me cold too. Elvis. Yuck. Gimme a break.
Yet I always adored In the Ghetto. Loved it when I first heard it as a kid in 1969, love it now, and I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to be bashful about that. You could think of it as maudlin schtick, I suppose, and these days a white guy singing something written by another white guy that purports to say something about the reality of black peoples’ lives in America is probably disreputable, at least as an idea, but damn, I don’t know. Written by a twenty-something Mac Davis, based on the impoverished life of a black kid from the wrong side of the tracks who he counted as a close pal when he was growing up in Lubbock, there’s something sincere about the song, and it veers toward both musical and lyrical understatement when it might be expected to launch itself over the top. The story plainly inspired Presley, then on the cusp of a major late-sixties comeback, who normally avoided message songs like the plague. His vocal on this beautifully recorded, superbly arranged version of the song is beyond reproach.
I’m temperamentally inclined to scoff at cliches and melodrama, yet it gets me every time, this story of a single mom who needs another hungry mouth to feed like a hole in the head, and can’t stop her kid from growing up angry and winding up dead, face down in the cold wet Chicago streets. Of course privileged white guys like me can’t know the first thing about any of that, yet surely it doesn’t hurt if somebody, anybody, tries to make us understand just enough to realize that there’s something horribly wrong. Maybe it’d be better if we got the message from somebody who actually lived it, I don’t know, but the message still resonates, no matter the source – doesn’t it? In the Ghetto doesn’t strike me as cultural appropriation or musical “blaxploitation”. It’s an artifact of an era when a lot of insular white folk were waking up to some ugly realities, and it was possible to have a hit record that told people like me to be ashamed of their indifference. The story was as real then as it remains today, and yeah, it was written and performed by white guys, but what’s true is true, and maybe that renders questions of authenticity beside the point.
What matters is to get people to listen. If that takes Elvis, so be it. I don’t care if it’s sung by Michael Fucking Bublé . What’s true is true, and we don’t get reminded enough.