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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006


This month sees the official release from Follow That Dream Records of a 2-CD edition of Elvis Presley's superb 1960-recorded album His Hand In Mine. The first CD contains the original LP and the second CD a number of outtakes. This is packaged as if it's a 7" (i.e. picture single or EP sized) vinyl record - and you could wish all CDs were boxed this way. It includes a booklet of photos and more. This comes from the same Elvis-specialist company that reissued the great Elvis Is Back album in similar style not so long ago.

This gives me a reason to reprint an article of mine on Elvis' gospel output first published in The Elvis Atlas: A Journey Through Elvis Presley's America, co-written by Roger Osborne and me, and published by the now-defunct Henry Holt Reference Division in New York ten years ago. I have revised the text of the article very minimally, except that I've pruned it and I've put into capital letters those people and topics that also have entries in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Gospel music has been largely ignored compared to jazz, blues and rock. This is not because the devil has the best tunes. Many of God's tunes are so good they've been filched for the devil, like 'How Jesus Died', secularised by RAY CHARLES into his classic 'Lonely Avenue'. That likeable song from Love Me Tender, 'We're Gonna Move', is a re-write of the spiritual 'You Gotta Move (To A Better Home)'. There has also been a tradition, dating back at least to the medicine shows, of sacrilegious re-writes. In 1928 Memphis blues singer JIM JACKSON recorded a version of the English hymn 'I Heard The Voice Of Jesus Say Come Unto Me And Rest' as 'I Heard The Voice Of A Pork Chop'. Clearly, gospel has been neglected because the devil has the best words - and perhaps because scholars of popular culture tend to be uncomfortable with, and bored by, the pious simplicity of the gospel message. This was never a difficulty for ELVIS PRESLEY, who grew up in the simple faith of the First Assembly Church of God, and whose first musical experience was in the church.

The Presleys' church was Pentecostal. Its faith is fundamentalist, accepting the literal truth of the Bible and disavowing alcohol, tobacco, theater and dancing, though its music was declamatory, and Gladys and Elvis Presley's love of gospel music flowed from their experience within the Tupelo congregation.

Yet the gospel music Elvis inherited was neither timeless nor uncontentious. Many deplored the Rev THOMAS A. DORSEY's success in creating a new me-me-me kind of song, replacing the communally-centered spirituals of an earlier era. This went with the drive by preachers to take control of church worship instead of servicing their congregations' participatory democracy.

Dorsey's 'Take My Hand Precious Lord' typified the genre and proved massively popular. When Elvis recorded his first gospel collection, in 1956, it was no surprise that he should include two Dorsey songs, this and 'Peace In The Valley'.

What great recordings they are: real soul-in-torment stuff. There is nothing mimsily pious here. 'Peace In The Valley' had been a hit in the early 1950s by white artist Red Foley on Memphis black radio-station WDIA. Elvis brings out its gothic spookiness, in which "the night is as black as the sea". It re-works the biblical vision of the Peaceable Kingdom: "...THE LION SHALL LAY DOWN WITH THE LAMB / And the beasts from the wild shall be led by a child / And I'll be changed, changed from this creature that I am." The way Elvis sings it is as sexy as hell.

Behind Elvis on the
Peace In The Valley EP cover, a rural American landscape is used to represent heaven. This follows the example of the Quaker painter Edward Hicks (1780-1849). His famous painting, The Peaceable Kingdom, is based on the same biblical passage as the Elvis EP's title-song, and uses Pennsylvania for the heavenly valley.

The white groups who had influenced him most were the Statesmen (Jake Hess is Presley's vocal prototype in many ways) and the Blackwoods, his mother's favourites; yet he loved black gospel groups, including the Harmonizing Four, and surely must have preferred them. White gospel, rigid and straitlaced, follows notions of Nice Singing, with rhythms of schooled tidiness, like Pat Boone singing 'Tutti Frutti'.

When Elvis was in Germany, Jordanaire Gordon Stoker sent him gospel records, and when he returned in 1960, after
Elvis Is Back and the first obligatory film-soundtrack, G.I. Blues, Elvis made a gospel album.

The original LP of
His Hand In Mine is so old it has an inner sleeve explaining "What Is Stereophonic Sound". Recorded in the two-track Nashville Studio B, it seems to have been made in heaven. It has a liquid clarity, a shimmering mercury perfection, every voice and note clear yet blending into a whole so cohesive that you feel no intrusion by technology. Presley's voice is at its mature best (as opposed to its youthful best, which is of course at least as good but different). The voice on His Hand In Mine is mellow yet expressive, free yet exact. While the Jordanaires' harmonies are, as ever, too white, the "blackness" of Elvis' vocals rescues and transforms this into one of his best records.

It's a great album despite its words. Is there a finer example of unintended bathos anywhere than in the intro to 'I Believe In The Man In The Sky' (a title summarising the sort of God that Elvis must have envisaged)?: "The steps that lead to any church / Form a stairway to a star / They're part of God and should be trod / More often than they are." Yet Elvis transcends this risible religiosity, making it a memorable showpiece for his impeccable timing and phrasing, which is alert and humorous, knowing yet devout, sumptuous but strong.

To turn from this pellucid sound to the murk of the multi-tracked
How Great Thou Art (1967) is to receive a nasty object-lesson in how hi-fi took a dive in the 1960s, as well as to admit that by the time of its creation Elvis was recording in a formulaic, weary way. The arrangements are florid and the music has largely lost a sense of connection to the gospel music Elvis grew up on - indeed the spirit of the enterprise seems no longer religious at all. He Touched Me (1972) is worse.

Elvis was brought up believing in a simple kind of heaven, and must have felt, later, doomed to exclusion from it. In his last years, it seems self-contempt ran so deep that even gospel music lost its value to him - but before that, gospel music, which he loved, gave him a corridor back to the better world of his childhood and his self-respect. (see RECOMMENDED, left) may not have "image available" but I do: the 2-CD set's cover is the same image as on the original LP:

This didn't exactly show the cool Elvis image we'd hoped he'd retain after his return from the Army, but the contents are, in their limited way, sublime.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i liked your review of 'His hand in Mine", but have to disagree with your comments on How great thou Art. Presley assembled a varied choir of voices for this and produced it himself, insisting that his voice be held back in the mix, to showcase the other singers. He revived his Pentecostal upbringing in numbers like 'So High and Run On, the latter a song people think Moby wrote. What about the beautiful, "Where could i go", used in the '68 special. Michael as you well know. How great thou Art is his real comeback, judging by the truly inspired version of 'Tomorrow is a long Time, written by your other great hero and recorded at the HGTA sessions.

10:02 pm  

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