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The images the average American holds of Greeks changes literally from day to day. These ever-evolving set of ideas draw upon the entire historical and cultural experience of the Hellenes. The lasting power of these images varies considerably. Yet, having said all that, how Elvis Presley became – if only briefly – a Greek God is one of the most unique of all such characterizations to date.
Nineteen fifty-six was Elvis Presley’s breakout year. “For Elvis Presley, 1956 was a year like no other. In January, he was a regional sensation, but by year’s end he had become a national and international phenomenon. He made his first two albums for RCA (both million sellers), appeared on national television 11 times, signed a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures, and starred in his first movie, Love Me Tender.
Elvis’ appearances on national television were pivotal events for America because his unconventional appearance and performing style caused nationwide controversy. Elvis Presley outraged adults, mesmerized the teenagers of the new youth generation, and soon became the leader of the cultural revolution sweeping across the country.” (elvispresleyphotos.com) The one event not mentioned above was when, in the very last months of 1956, Elvis was compared quite favorably to the Ancient Greeks.
On either September 20 or 21, accounts vary, art historian Professor Harry Wood, during his first lecture at Arizona State College at Tempe proclaimed that Elvis “was a ‘dead ringer’ for the gods of the golden age of Greek art.” (Hattiesburg American (MI) September 20, 1956.)
His claim took off like a rocket, being showcased in one news venue after another for the next three/four months No published account I could locate reports upon how Dr. Wood’s lecture became known to the Associated Press but once the first account was published the wire-services along with further news accounts spread this claim to the world.
As Dr. Wood noted, “famous Greek statues of Apollo and Hermes show a strong resemblance to Presley, even to the duck bill haircut and sideburns…The twitch and twist, after all made Greek art popular in Greece,” Wood said. “The Greeks were the first to capture it in stone and break away from the stiffness of Egyptian art.” (Arizona Republic (Phoenix) October 3, 1956.)
Photographs of Presley appeared next to those of renowned Classical Greek statues were employed in newspapers around the nation to illustrate Dr. Wood’s comparison. “The most striking statue of Elvis The Greek is that of the Charioteer at Delphi…it has the same heavy jaw, Greek nose, thick lips and half lowered eyelids as Presley. It has the same somewhat proud adolescent look of a young hero.” (Montgomery Advertiser September 21, 1956.)
“Other Greek works cited by Wood include Theseus on the Parthenon, Hermes by Praxiteles (this one has a ‘Presley face’ and sideburns) and Apoxyinenos by Lysippus.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette September 21, 1956.)
For Professor Wood, Presley was the “revival of a Greek archetype often found in the entertainment world.” (Carol Daily Times Herald (IA) September 20, 1956.)
Dr. Wood also recognized similarities between the classical Greek musician Terpender (aka Terpander and/or Terpandros), who is often identified as the father of Greek music and through it, of lyric poetry. Additionally, Dr. Wood stated, “the Greek singers began to take on the role of gods in the minds of the audience.
I rather imagine there were probably lots of young Greek maidens screaming at the actors and singers playing the role of Apollo, just as our youngsters do at Presley.” (Fort Lauderdale News September 20, 1956.)
Now on the surface all of the good Dr. Wood’s comparisons between Elvis Presley and the Ancient Greeks sound quite positive. But this was not absolutely the case in 1956. At that moment in time Presley was also known in the public press as ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ for his frenetic on-stage dancing.
This young performer was not only presenting a new style of singing but his physical performance was something the general public had never seen. Unquestionably a significant part of Presley’s appeal, to the youth of America, was not just in his singing but his freewheeling physical performance. Yet not everyone was pleased with this new style of rock and roll dance.
As one reviewer framed the issue, “not all the battles raging throughout our land are political. There is another battle of no mean significance going on today. The question before the house is: Shall the rock-n-roll music roll on or shall it be choked to death?” (Romanul American (Detroit) October 6, 1956.)
Clearly Greek-American studies isn’t as straight forward as it might, at first, seem. Just recording the actions of Greek residents in North America isn’t even half the story. How Americans have and continue to view Greeks has changed time and again since their first appearances on these shores.
The real history, then, is in the ever changing notions and to chart them out. A forgotten issue today, perhaps, but in 1956 Elvis’ on stage hip wiggles not only scandalized public officials it almost got the young singer sent to jail – on numerous occasions.
Look Magazine, again late in 1956, shared this view and went so far as to announce that “Presley is mostly nightmare. On stage, his gyrations…are vulgar…He has also dragged ‘big beat’ music to new lows in taste.”
The associations between Elvis stage movements –as reflecting moral turpitude – were so strongly felt that during his 1956 Florida tour the Murray Hill Methodist Church held a public forum titled, Hot Rods, Reefers and Rock and Roll.
So, as we read these dated news accounts of Elvis Presley as having a similar physical appearance and the cultural influence on his youthful fans as ancient Greek performers it must be understood that in 1956 his frenetic stage act proved so shocking he was banned from appearing in certain venues and was nearly arrested on several occasions.
In 1956, the year Elvis Presley became an international sensation, he was also proclaimed a Greek God! This proclamation is in keeping with the ongoing use of American notions of Greek culture, past present, all invented-by-the-West to explain and understand the everyday world in which we all live. For reasons best understood at the university, while Greek-American have always experienced this kind of multiple symbolic employment of Greeks and their culture these continuing memes cannot be pointed to as a form of Greek exceptionalism on America’s cultural landscape.
Collectively the lesson drawn from Elvis Presley’s ever-so-brief association with the Ancient Greeks is that as Greek-Americans we must become aware of the changing ideas and images held by the wider society in which we live. For as one example after another illustrates, those persons or activities the general American public has identified or denied recognition as a Greek changes over time.
As historical events, generations, and residency change, so do the images and stereotypes of persons identified from the outside as ethnically or culturally Greek. While one would logically see these transforming images a commonplace in any social study of Greeks, academics are marching to a far different set of expectations that overshadow everyday experiences at a particular moment in the history of a people.
Originating Source - By Steve Frangos for The National Herald
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