Elvis Presley and the Tea Party Nation

by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

10/11/2012

I first noticed it in 1973, when I was working at Harrah’s Tahoe, the populist casino that bussed in hundred of white working class people from the California Central Valley and Sacramento valley towns to spend twelve hours playing the nickel slots, then bussing them back home—free, good clean fun, except they usually left rent money or mortgage payments behind.

I worked first as a slots change girl on the floor, elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, breath to breath, with these people. They were familiar to me as my own relatives from having grown up in rural Oklahoma, many of them descendants of the Dust Bowl Okies or the “defense” Okies, those who migrated to work in defense plants along the Pacific coast during World War II. Most of these sojourners were in their thirties and forties. I was 33 at the time and a ‘60s veteran of a decade of civil rights, anti-war, anti-racist, and feminist movements, sojourning in the lovely Lake Tahoe basin, trying to write a book before descending back to urban reality and re-assuming my rebel stance. But, I had to work a forty-hour week, punch a time clock, to subsist. I didn’t get much writing done.

Promoted to a change booth in slots, working graveyard shift, I sat all alone on my perch with a bird’s-eye vision of the slots section and nearly the entire casino floor.

There were shows in all the clubs, some of them without charge, such as Fats Domino frequently performing in one of the bar areas for the price of a drink. Others took place in the big show rooms, but were not expensive, at least at Harrah’s. I saw Sonny and Cher, Raquel Welch with her living puppet show—living because the “puppets” were living dwarfs—and there was the hulking figure of Merle Haggard many nights, at a Blackjack table, playing alone against the dealer.


Hear Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz discuss her grandfather’s involvement in Oklahoma’s early 20th-century leftist movement.


A bloated, nearly dead, has-been Elvis Presley—he died four years later at 43—was another. Elvis had been my king 16 years earlier when I was a senior in high school, 1955–56. I had moved from the country to Oklahoma City to live with my sister that school year, to work nearly full time and finish high school at a trade school. Volunteering as an usher at the Municipal Auditorium, I was able to get in free to see Elvis perform in person. On other occasions at the Oklahoma City Municipal Auditorium, I volunteered as an usher and saw Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ruth Brown, Chuck Berry, and other favorites of us “wild” teenagers—it was also the year of Rebel Without a Cause  and Blackboard Jungle. This music shook up my presumptions, well honed by my Southern Baptist upbringing, and opened the doors of my mind. The music and my admiration for the black artists coincided with Civil Rights demonstrations in Oklahoma City—I was attending the first integrated high school in its first year of integration—and had to do with making me supportive of that growing movement.

Poet and songwriter, John Trudell, called Elvis our “Baby-Boom Che,” in his wonderful 1992 song:

You wanna know what happened to Elvis?

I’ll tell ya what happened.

I oughta know, man, I was one of his army.

I mean, man, I was on his side,

He made us feel all right.

 

By 1973, most of us who had been in Elvis’s metaphorical army thought Elvis was an embarrassment and a tragedy. The other rhythm and blues/rock ’n’ roll artists from the 1950s, the African-Americans, were still revered, but not Elvis. I assumed my attitude was universal, but I saw with my own eyes how Elvis packed them into the Nevada casinos during the 1970s in a second career. Judging from his fans, whom I observed, members of the new generation were not among them; rather, those who would have been teens like me or a few years older in the early and mid 1950s when he burst on the scene. Then I realized that many of my own cousins and friends from that time who had scorned Elvis were now enthusiastic fans. (I was the single individual from my poor, rural extended family and friends, mostly Southern Baptists, to become a rock and roller and later a blazing leftist radical.)

One night, sitting in my change booth on high, observing and thinking through the din of the thunking one-armed bandits and jackpot alarms, it hit me: These fans of the second-act Elvis had been the “squares,” as we called them in the ’50s, the good little Baptists who thought Elvis was vulgar sexually, and that we who adored him were sinners headed for hell. They were now living what they had missed and must have envied desperately when they were teens. Now it was safe, but still fun.

A similar revelation came to me as I witnessed the participants in the Tea Party rallies during the past year. They are the same people grown older, plus later baby-boomers who missed the ‘60s’ fun of mass rebellion, mostly from rural or small towns or working-class white suburbs. They were the ones drafted into the Korean or Vietnam Wars or went to business school or trade school, rather than Berkeley or Harvard. They were the ones who raised children in their evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant faiths. They are who I was supposed to turn out to be, except for a “simple twist of fate,” or maybe Elvis’s gyrating hips. They are doing a parody of the ‘60s that they missed.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 3, Issue 18. Sept. 15, 2012.