Miss Rosie Mae Watches Elvis Presley on the "Ed Sullivan" Show

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Miss Rosie Mae Watches Elvis Presley on the "Ed Sullivan" Show

Poem

By: Herbert Woodward Martin

Date: 2001

Source: Clemens, Will, ed. All Shook Up: Collected Poems About Elvis. Fayetteville, Ark.: University of Arkansas Press, 2001.

About the Author: Herbert Woodward Martin served as Poet-in-Residence and Professor of English at the University of Dayton. His published collections of poetry include Galileo's Suns, The Forms of Silence, and The Log of the Vigilante, a journal of slave captivity. He is best known for his portrayals of the African American poet and Dayton native, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

INTRODUCTION

Elvis Presley, the "King of Rock and Roll," became the symbol of youthful rebellion in the 1950s. He challenged the blandness and conformity of mainstream culture.

Born into poverty on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi to a truck driver and a housewife, Presley grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood. From birth, he heard gospel and spiritual music, Shakerag (Tupelo) black rhythm and blues, hillbilly, country, soul, and jazz. Blending such musical influences, Presley made his first recordings in 1954 for Sun Records. Some of his songs were regional hits. In 1955, Presley's new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, negotiated a recording contract with RCA Records. With "Heartbreak Hotel," "Don't Be Cruel," and other number-one hits the following year, Presley became an international figure and the first major rock and roll star.

Bashful and awkward, Presley had no idea how his lascivious looks, impish grin, and sexy bump and grind would affect his fans as well as those who saw him as a bad influence. Lovelorn teenage girls did not just pine for Presley. Shockingly, they were uninhibited about their physical desire, something utterly removed from the realm of socially approved behavior. Reporters, teachers, preachers, and parents were appalled by "Elvis the Pelvis." As a white man who sounded like a black man, he also threatened the segregationist racial norms of the 1950s.

Presley's frequent appearances on television during the early part of his career culminated in his electrifying debut on the popular The Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, 1956. Sullivan did not like entertainment that went beyond the bounds of middle-class propriety. So his uneasy willingness to have Presley on the show was in a sense acknowledgment of the star's power to transgress social norms. Neither the guest nor the host failed to profit from the event: no television show up to that time had come close to attracting as large an audience. However, Presley was only shown from the waist up, with his swiveling hips deemed too sexy for the home viewers.

By the 1960s, Presley seemed increasingly irrelevant to those who wanted to push cultural boundaries further and to use music as a form of political protest. He turned his energies to making movies and doing concert tours. Presley died at Graceland, his Memphis home, on August 16, 1977 of various physical ailments that were exacerbated by drug abuse.

PRIMARY SOURCE

Miss Rosie Mae Watches Elvis Presley on the "Ed Sullivan" Show

    Miss Rosie Mae,
    sitting in her living room
    watching "The Ed Sullivan Show,"
    sucked in her pious lips,
    smacked them clean as any sectarians',
    watching from Los Angeles to the Adirondacks,
    and uttered with her skeptical voice
    of motherly concentration:
    "Those little girls are too fast for words."
    Every time his thigh would quiver,
    as if he were writing
    down some invisible numbers
    or vast phrases to thrill the blood,
    those tv girls would scream
    a lightning jolt again and again.
    Then Miss Rosie Mae would point to the screen
    as if a million girls had, all of a sudden,
    given up the privacy of their bodies wholly,
    especially when Sullivan announced:
    "For the first time on our stage,
    here to perform for you this evening,
    is the new singing sensation Elvis Presley."
    The cheers never allowed us to hear again.
    I never knew a guitar had so many seductive moves;
    I never knew a guitar could win so many innocent lips.
    They testified loudly when his guitar twitched;
    they shivered, as if touched by the Holy Ghost,
    when the chords tickled the loneliness
    in their thighs.
    "It is dangerous to watch that young man
    from the waist down. He's pure sex,"
    Miss Rosie Mae said.
    "Somebody, somewhere needs to give those
    little girls a pinch of saltpeter,
    maybe a little more than a pinch if you ask me."
    Elvis uttered his songs on a ledger of air;
    he sang with such a vengeance
    that every young girl felt
    as if he were singing only to her,
    that she had received her proper potion
    and could cheer, unreservedly,
    her blood into infinite hoarseness.

SIGNIFICANCE

The 1950s are often remembered as a time of political and cultural conformity. Yet an undercurrent of rebellion runs through the decade with the arts reflecting a sharp rejection of mainstream values. Music, in particular the rock and roll movement led by Elvis Presley, undermined the constraints of the 1950s. With roots in African American rhythm and blues, a raw sexuality, and cheerful rebelliousness, rock and roll exploded in the 1950s to threaten mainstream cultural mores.

Rock music combined a strong beat with off-beat accents and repeated harmonic patterns to produce its distinctive sound, with the electric guitar providing the basic instrument. It was once known as rhythm and blues, a black musical style. Radio disc jockey Alan Freed coined the term "rock 'n' roll" (a phrase used in black neighborhoods to refer to dancing and sex) to sell the songs to white audiences who would not otherwise listen to "race music." By blurring the divisions between blacks and whites, rock and roll music challenged the racial conformity of the 1950s. It promoted racial tolerance among the teenagers who formed its audience.

By the mid-1950s, rock had fully captured the imagination of young Americans. The music flourished as an expression for young people experiencing the turbulence of puberty. It gave adolescents a self-conscious sense of being a unique social group with distinctive characteristics. Teenagers used it to claim their own cultural style and to issue a message of resistance to authority figures. Rock music would continue through the subsequent decades as one of the major vehicles of youth revolt.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Altschuler, Glenn C. All Shook Up: How Rock 'n' Roll Changed America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. Elvis Presley. New York: Viking, 2003.

Riley, Tim. Fever: How Rock 'n' Roll Transformed Gender in America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004.

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Miss Rosie Mae Watches Elvis Presley on the "Ed Sullivan" Show

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