Historian and author Michael Bertrand joins host Lynn Vartan and Professor Ryan Paul to discuss the early emergence of Rock n’ Roll in the United States and the cultural origins, impact and legacy of its history. Join us!
Dr. Lynn Vartan 00:02
Hey everyone, this is Lynn Vartan and you're listening to the apex hour on K SUU thunder 91.1. In this show, you get more personal time with the guests who visit Southern Utah University from all over, learning more about their stories and opinions beyond their presentations on stage. We will also give you some new music to listen to, and hope to turn you on to some new sounds and new genres. You can find this here every Thursday at 3pm or on the web at suu.edu/apex. But for now, welcome to this week's show here on thunder 91.1. All right, everyone. Well, welcome into the apex hour this week. For those of you who might be listening live, I'm sorry that I missed you. Last week, I was a little bit under the weather. But I'm so excited to be back. We are here on a beautiful Thursday afternoon again. And we are talking about one of my favorite subjects, which is music. But we are talking about music history, specifically in relation to the emergence of rock and all of the cultural and racial implications and how it all affected each other and how it continues to affect music today. So with that in mind, I'm going to introduce you to my two guests. I have our apex guests for this week Michael Bertrand who is the author of race rock and Elvis welcome in Michael.
Michael Bertrand 01:36
Oh, thank you. Thank you, Lynn.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 01:38
And also my dear friend and colleague who is the reason why Michael is here. And that is Ryan Paul. Welcome, Ryan.
Ryan Paul 01:46
Thanks, Lynn. Happy to be here.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 01:48
So let's start with the story of the connection between you two, because it's kind of a beautiful testament to how scholarship continues to be those ripples in the water. So Ryan, can you tell us how you came to know Michael?
Ryan Paul 02:03
Sure. I went to graduate school at Ole Miss the University of Mississippi. And I finished my coursework and spend some time writing. And he was not a professor there at the time. I came back after a year. And he as I was finishing and editing my work. My other graduate committee members said you have to stop what you're doing. And read this book that just came out. And it was race rockin Elvis because when I went to Ole Miss the early, my advisor said you realize studying rock and roll history is not you're going to be a pariah in historical community. No one thinks that's relevant. But then he wrote this book, this groundbreaking book on race rockin Elvis. And the beautiful part was, by the time I got back, he was a faculty member at Ole Miss. So I met him at a bookstore in Oxford. And it just took off from there. And he was nothing but supportive and thoughtful. And it was amazing how the things he was talking about. Were grounded in a massive amount of history. And it was just cool.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 03:02
Yeah. Thank you. Well, Michael, how did you come to get involved in this work? I mean, you probably loved listening to rock growing up. Is that where it started for you?
Michael Bertrand 03:16
Yeah, no, actually, my parents, my mother particularly was a huge Elvis fan. And so he had a lot of Elvis records, albums and everything else. And so I got a taste of that through her. And then just music in general. In my family, we always music was always around. But the Elvis thing really took off when when Elvis died. And it seemed as if it was almost like a member of our family had died the way that some family members were reacting. And it was really curious for me, so I I just thought it was fascinating. And I wanted to find out why. Why that was. So that's what kind of got me into understanding the Elvis Presley phenomenon, I guess.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 04:03
Yeah. And were you always enamored with Elvis's music from the get go? Or is it something you kind of grew into from listening to it in the house?
Michael Bertrand 04:13
Yeah, I kind of grew into it with my with my folks and stuff. And my mom, particularly I am, because she was she would play it. And not just she played his older material at the same time that his newer materials coming out. So I was getting a little bit of both. And so yeah, it just grew on me in terms of understanding, you know, his appeal.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 04:35
Yeah. Yeah. And as you got involved, you know, in scholarship, how, how did that how did it translate into a career or a scholarly endeavor for you?
Michael Bertrand 04:48
Well, I when I, I went to, to university and my undergraduate degree and and I was really interested in how no one in my classes know that no professor in classes ever talked about Elvis Presley, even though they're upper division classes on post US history. They didn't do anything with Elvis or rock and roll, or music in general. So I just thought that was something was wrong with that. So when I finally graduated, and then I went to go to graduate school, and I sort of made it almost a, an aspiration to try to bring that into the scholarship to make that part of the of the story. And so I just hardheaded enough, I guess we're because I like his, you know, Ryan says, with pariah, I met that kind of same resistance as well. But I guess I was just too dense to realize that I couldn't do it. So that's what I got started.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 05:56
That's fantastic. And when you when you got started with a scholarship, were you maybe really focused on the music? Or was the cultural part and the historical part always appealing to you?
Michael Bertrand 06:09
Yeah, I think it was always the cultural and the historical part that really, I I am a very untalented musician, amateur musician. So I, I was not really that well versed in the music as a form. But I was interested in the cultural and historical parts. And that part, allow me to really try to understand what the what the appeal was in terms of how it affected people. Right, in that way. So that's the direction that I I took with that the music. You know, we mentioned in an earlier lecture today, in the in the hall that WB Dubois made a comment that he wasn't really a technician of music. But he understood how music affected people. And while I'm not putting myself in the same league is DuBois. I sort of that's the direction that I like to follow.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 07:16
Yeah. At the end of your talk, today, you had a quote, that that was about the importance of stories and about storytelling. And I wondered if you might share with us, because because a lot of your work starts to deal with, particularly race and the cracks in the color line that maybe rock and roll what was able to present. And I wonder if you might share with us the story of how you started that line of Inquisition, with with how you came to look at the different things that were happening at the same time.
Michael Bertrand 07:55
Sure. A few things actually, that really affected me. I was, I was in graduate school. And I was assigned to teach a class and I never taught before. And so basically was previewing an eyes on the prize episode that dealt with the lynching of Emmett Till. And I'd already decided I was gonna do something on on rock and roll and Elvis Presley, but I never really defined it. But after I saw this particular episode, where it showed how chill had been brutalized and murdered, it really affected me in a very significant way. Sort of an epiphany of describe it. Because I didn't understand why that sort of brutality could happen in the same time, at the same time, in the same space, as a young Elvis Presley was sort of violating some of the same rules in terms of race and sex. That was the reason why imaterial was lynched, because he violated those unwritten rules about race and sex. And here you have Elvis Presley, who is doing the same thing and actually becoming quite popular on a regional level, at the same time. 1955. So I, again, I'm really attracted to ironies and contradictions. And that was a major turning point for me. Yeah. With that, yeah.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 09:30
Thank you for sharing that. Yes. A powerful I mean, a powerful way to start down this path I think.
Michael Bertrand 09:37
Yeah no, it really that that imagery of what we saw with with young till in his in his coffin, and yeah, that is stay with me forever.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 09:49
Yeah, right. Well, history and Ryan, I know you are. We have two great historians in the room. This idea that, that history is something we always carry with us. We are all historians. Ryan, how did you What is your relationship to rock and roll? And what sort of things? Are you interested in studying in terms of rock and roll history and culture?
Ryan Paul 10:12
I think it's very interesting to think about rock and roll at least Southern rock and roll as a musical style that shouldn't exist. I mean, it is really an exercise in contradictions, right?
Dr. Lynn Vartan 10:26
What do you mean shouldn't exist shouldn't exist as a commercial form or?
Ryan Paul 10:29
Well shouldn't exist in the sense that here you have these men and women in the American South who were raised a certain way, right? They're actively in many ways, culturally going against their parents. I think that we've we've talked about this a little bit in Michael and I, this idea that we think about the music of the civil rights movement, right, the efforts to desegregate we think about gospel, pretty much exclusive right? Are these kinds of civil rights anthems when in reality, rock and roll is doing that these kids are prepared in many ways to move that needle forward because they're experiencing this music. And it's interesting to me, that people who originally are seen as outliers or oddballs, become heroes and become nationally accepted, right? I mean, you have this kid, Elvis and Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash and all these other people that, that go through their lives being different and being mocked for their difference. And then all of a sudden, they become American. Yeah, right. The Southerners become truly what American is, and we can argue it. And we can debate whether, you know, Elvis sells out later on, and that whole transformational thing. But early on, that early 50s, rock and roll stuff coming out of Memphis and other places, really is significant, because it's enhanced by the transmission lines, radio and record players, and it couldn't exist without the culture in which it was born in. It was of its time. That's what fascinates me right? How these things that start regionally, these things that shouldn't exist, because they hadn't ever been able to happen before. All of a sudden, change America, right? The gates of history swing on small hinges. And what's even more exciting about it is, is that Elvis walks into sunstudios has no idea he's going to be Elvis Presley. Often the before is really more critical than the after. So he goes in thinking one thing and has no idea what's about to happen. We know, because it's all hindsight. But think about what that would be when all of these people come in thinking, I can do something different.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 12:42
Yeah. Yeah. Fascinating. Mike, what do you think about that, that that concept of the before and after with some of these artists?
Michael Bertrand 12:51
No, I think it's the thing with Elvis before, is difficult to imagine. I think it's difficult to imagine what Elvis, difficult to imagine for somebody at that time to imagine what Elvis became. And I don't think Elvis could have imagined that either. But I want to touch on if I can, Lynn, something that Ryan said that I think is really important. And he mentioned about the civil rights movement associated with gospel music, that we always associate gospel music, one of the things that we don't really think about very often is that the same kids and not only on the white side, but on the African American side, those kids are listening to Black radio. Throughout the decade of the 1950s, they were very much influenced by the same thing that was influencing Elvis and other people listening to the radio. And so I think it had a very big impact on creating a sense of feeling a respectability about themselves, because they listened to those radio shows, because those radio shows, I think were very important. Many of those shows the disc jockeys are really, you know, some of them were very flamboyant at different times. They could be very flamboyant, they had a purpose in doing that. But at the same time, the same, the same disc jockeys, many of them were coming out of the school system. They were teachers. They were principals. They were people that actually got on the radio, and were really preaching for lack of a better word, an affirmative picture of African American life. And so I think a lot of those young African American kids, who, who basically were Emmett Till Emmett Till's generation, and they were very traumatized by the immaterial lynching, I think they were also listening to those tape radio shows. And they were getting a whole different sense, also of black life that was now being broadcast. So I think as a writer, I think it made a big impact in so many ways.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 14:59
That transmission of that radio really affected ever because everyone could listen to radio, and everyone could get out of it something different or something the same or could influence them. It had this deep influence. And, and I think, I don't know if this is true as well. But also, once you had the radio, it didn't cost anything. So you you didn't have to buy all the records, you could hear what was coming and what was new.
Michael Bertrand 15:28
Yeah, and if I could, there's one sort of ambivalent thing about this, too, is that the radio, it was really good in terms of bringing people together. But it also did create, or continuous social distancing, that you could actually be very much into rhythm and blues or African American music. And sometimes the radio was as far as you went with it. I see. And I also think that, in many ways, rock and roll, it was I think, revolutionary in so many ways. Unfortunately, I don't think he created a dialogue that could have actually brought about political change. I think it did bring about cultural change. But it didn't translate into actual political change, at least a lot for a lot of these. A lot of these white listeners, as I think it didn't get there.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 16:33
Well, let me ask you this, do you believe I mean, we, of course, we have been talking a lot about music as as cultural change and that power, it has this cultural change. So do you believe that music has the capability to assist with political change?
Michael Bertrand 16:49
Yeah, I think it can. I think it actually did here. I think if this is what fascinates me, and you can look at different polls and different numbers and things, polling. But if you look back at polling that was done in terms of the Gallup poll, or the Harris polls at that time, and asking the questions in 1961 1962. Asking white respondents about their feelings about what do you think about desegregation of transportation lines? You know, what do you feel about the desegregation of schools, these respondents who were responding in like 1962 63, were pretty much before that, that they were not against it at all. Now, these people when they were when they were polled, were were in their late 20s, mid to late 20s. And so that's a generation of people that basically grew up with rhythm and blues and rock and roll. And so they've developed I think, again, from what the polls that are more political in nature, I guess, they show that this this age group seems to have been affected, you know, and that they were not necessarily opposed to the changes that were being brought by the Civil Rights Movement. That's also interesting that the same generation, perhaps, is also going to be voting for George Wallace, in 1968. But I think what we need to do is, is not start and stop with that question. And just say, Okay, well, they must have been racist. I think what we need to look at is what happened between 1960 to 1963, and 1968? Or what did they What did this group of people perceive was happening? And why did they change? Because we do see people that obviously, as teenagers looked like they were in love with Clyde McPhatter, Ruth Brown and ever in Baker, Viet in 1968, they're voting for George Wallace. I think it's more complicated than just saying, well they like the music, but that was it. I think we can also look at what happened between those times.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 19:13
What do you think, or both of you we probably both have some thoughts about that. What did happen?
Ryan Paul 19:20
Well, I think that one of the exciting things about rock and roll is it's one of the truly first generational musics, right? Because of its portability. So you can in the old days, if I'm a radio programmer, radios are in the house, right? They're a piece of furniture, now they're in my car, they're portable, I can shut my door and listen to whatever I want. It's not my parents music anymore, right? So so portability, and rock'n'roll begins this generational change, and, and that's a push back from other generations, you know, they push back to see what sets the way and we do that today, right? You bring your kids into the car, go visit grandma. They put in their headphones, and they're listening something very different than what you're listening to in the car. And I think things like Vietnam, and are certainly there. I think access to education, I think that certain kinds of media that's going to get people thinking a certain way or another, certainly political, the civil rights movement is happening there. Lyndon Johnson in the Voting Rights Act. Go ahead.
Michael Bertrand 20:23
Yeah. Yeah, no, I think I think in some ways, it's complicated. In most ways, it's complicated. I think a lot of what happens, I think, with with Elvis is that that group, working class, they've basically through this period of, after World War Two, they have started to succeed in terms of prosperity, they're reaching up into the middle class. But I think at the same time, I think they feel somewhat alienated by some of the issues that are exploding in the 1960s. And I think, you know, just because you may be progressive in one area doesn't necessarily mean you're progressive, and everything that you think about. And so I think that, you know, some of these things really upset people in terms of Vietnam, and the protests against Vietnam. I mean, they were they were the previous generation with Vietnam protests. And so I think that upset them. I think also the marginalization. You know, the same thing that we see people like George Wallace exploit, they're exploiting the marginalization, of working class, white Southerners. And so I think, all this comes into play as well that, you know, the one thing about popular music, and I think popular music is really important. But I think history is multi causal. I don't think it's just one cause of things that that basically changes everything. I think we also have a situation of structural discrimination in this country that has been there for so long that, you know, all of these things play into it. So again, I think if if the popular music, you know, it's important, very important, but I think it's, it's one of many factors. That's important.
Ryan Paul 22:21
Forget the challenges of time, right? Think about by 1968 Elvis has become mainstream, right? It's kind of sold out if you will. Buddy Holly's dead. Richie Valens is dead. Chuck Berry's in jail. Right Johnny Cash has gone country. Jerry Lee Lewis is full of weird sexual marriage things. I mean, all of these people that are the originators Little Richard has gone to the, to the cloth. Right, all of these originators of what we were the pioneers of rock and roll, have generationally been transformed either in the next life or have chosen something else.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 23:00
Yeah. Interesting. It's interesting to look at it that way. I'm at you know, when you start listing all of those things that happened in that time, it's fascinating. Well, we can't talk about music without listening to some music. And Michael, I asked you for some of your very, very favorite song songs you would never turn off. And we're going to start with, you know, probably one that a lot of people feel the same way about which is what a wonderful world by Louis Armstrong. Tell me why that song is so meaningful to you.
Michael Bertrand 23:33
It really it really is the melody is one thing in the words, the message I think that we could all come together that eventually things will get better.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 23:45
I love it. Well we're gonna listen to it. This is what a wonderful world by Louie Armstrong KSUU thunder 91.1 All right, well welcome back everyone. I mean, how can you not feel great hearing that that's the very famous what a wonderful world by Louis Armstrong. This is KSUU thunder 91.1 This is the apex hour. As always, if you're interested in the music that you hear on the apex, our there is an open Spotify playlist on our website, which is suu.edu/apex, you can go to the podcasts tab, you can find out all of our past episodes on the podcast but also you'll find the open playlist which is played on the apex our and it's such a wide range of music, everything from World Music to rock to anything you can possibly think of. So enjoy that. I am joined in the studio by Michael Bertrand and Orion Paul, and we are talking about rock music and pop culture. And you know, as we listen to the song, the song is what a wonderful world you know. And I think that the sentiment of the coming together of humanity and coming together of the world is sort of a great place to launch the next part of our conversation. Michael, you said at one point in your visit that humanity comes together through pop culture. And I wondered if you might go off on that for a bit expand on that in your belief system? And then and let's then get Ryan in on this as well.
Michael Bertrand 27:30
Okay, yeah, no, I think that, um, and again, that's not original to me, I thought that Bill Hooks, the writer who just passed away on this previous fall, she made it part of her career writing career where she, she wrote tons of stuff. She basically believed that popular culture and music was where people came together, the majority of people came together. And what I've taken from that, is that as scholars, as historians, I guess, our our perspective is that if we want to reach those people, that's where we need to go, is popular music, and, and to basically, you know, take it from there. And I think Ryan has some things too, with the same kind of theme as that.
Ryan Paul 28:19
I think that we, that popular music is like the town square, right? If you think about that, if you think about Andy Griffith, right? What do you do at the town square, you shop? You go to the barbershop to converse, you learn the gossip. I mean, this is the commonality that we all have. And I think that's, I mean, the three of us here, it's the same thing, right? We approach music in a different way. And, and I think that this is the starting point, right? This is the the Nexus that connects us if we can all meet. To do this here, we can move further out, right? This is something that we all understand. We all know how it feels to enjoy a good song. And we all know what it's like to, to be comforted in those ways. And it really opens up the human condition and popular culture and is really critical to understand why we do what we do as a group.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 29:18
Well, but what I mean that all sounds wonderful, right? But what does that mean? Like, how do we do that? How does that? I mean, I know we can start looking at historical look at things and look at patterns. But how does that translate to now? Tell me more.
Michael Bertrand 29:33
If I can riff on what Ryan said. Go back to what we said earlier in this broadcast about the stories. And it's basically what we talked about earlier today is the stories Charlie Parker. If I can relate that anecdote, where he was in a Harlem cafe, listening to a jukebox he plugged in some country music and some of his friends who were there who jazz musicians basically came to him and said, Gosh, that's awful stuff. Why do you isn't that why was that? You know? And he, he stopped him? And he said, No, he goes, listen to the stories. You know, it's a common cultural reservoir they were talking about between black and white. And it's like, you know, basically, if we could come together and listen to those stories, I think that we can begin to imagine that we could dialogue with those stories, if we can imagine. And I think that's what happens with rock and roll. I think when you have someone like an Elvis Presley, listening to an author crewed up, and basically saying something to the effect, you know, I wish that I could feel what Arthur feels. Well, I think you're getting to a point where here's the guy. Again, as Ryan said earlier, in terms of this, you're there racing this culture where, you know, you never think about crossover. You never think about crossover in terms of black and white in this in this era of the soundness time. Yeah, but now you have, you know, here's a kid saying, If I could just feel it with Arthur felt, you know, singing that, to me, that takes a stretch, that was not available to generations earlier. They're taking a stretch that they're listening to the stories, but as they're listening to them, they realize, I think we have something in common there. So they can imagine that actually, we can dialogue together, you know, we can actually communicate with each other on a similar topic. And I think the same thing with listening to these radio shows with rhythm and blues. I mean, you got these kids listening to rhythm and blues. And these kids are relating to this. They're taking this music and realating it to their own lives. And so again, going back to what we said earlier, that he's just so much out of that's why I think what Ryan's talking about, this should never have happened, right? This whole rock and roll explosion thing should never have happened. Because, you know, never, I don't think ever before because you have a white southerner, say in 1920, or 1930, or 1890. Imagine what it would be like to be a black man. Can you imagine that right now.
Ryan Paul 32:22
And that's what this forces us to do. Right? It forces us to recognize common humanity, right? Because these two cultures had been so had been based upon the idea that you are not human, whether it's even poor whites or blacks, but there is a you are not like me, right. And if we share the common cultural reservoir, what rock'n'roll does is it allows us to begin to recognize the humanity in each other. And once I can recognize you, as a human being at the basic level, and hear your story, then I can begin to have the dialogue and have the understanding. And that's why it matters because it allows us to recognize common core humanity in all of us.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 33:05
So let me ask you this, do you think that music now can do that? Or is it commercialized now beyond the point where, where it's still has that purity or that connection to storytelling? I mean, it's complex, right? That this this time, the music seems very close, very, very pure, you know, but I wonder, can can this be a tool that can we learn from history and use this now? Or are we just so commercialized? Are we so about the business of it all?
Michael Bertrand 33:39
See, I don't think the business I understand the business is the issue. And I think, you know, the music industry, but I also think, the music industry, whatever that is, yeah. They don't create anything. Right? Right. They actually produce it, and mass distribute it, but the people that actually create it, are the people on the streets. And so they create some that's what happen with rock and roll. I mean, the music industry didn't create rock and roll, you know, that was coming from, from from people. And so they marketed it, and they, you know, exploited it to whatever else. And so, yeah, I do think there's a possibility because even with the commercial, and again, that does distort everything. But I do think that there is always that potential because that music comes from that common humanity. It comes from people who are trying to express themselves in a way that, you know, they're not available, any other avenues are not available to them. And so they express themselves the way they can. Now, the music industry comes in says, Hey, that'll sell. So we'll, right we'll take it, but that's not where it starts. It starts with people, right?
Ryan Paul 34:54
And unlike any other time now, we have the ability to create without that music industry, right think of YouTube, I mean, all of the, the musicians that, you know, that you've played on the show are just that are created in ways that without that music industry, and we're allowed, we're able to distribute, distribute it better. And it really creates this much more global idea of who we are.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 35:21
Do you think that as consumers of music, we are different now than then?
Ryan Paul 35:28
We have a lot more choices.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 35:29
Yeah. And how does that play into this conversation? Does it?
Michael Bertrand 35:35
I wonder, I think we, I think we cannot take in isolation, any kind of historical isolation, I think you have to understand that there are many other factors going on. So I do think that we are different, because the times are different, the times have changed. And there are a lot of things that are going on that we have a situation I think in the country where a certain segment of people do not understand where another segment are coming from. And I think even listening to the music, for some people, you will never cross that bridge, or it take a while to cross that bridge. So I think, you know, we always have to look at the music as reflective of the environment that produces it, you know, whether it's rockabilly rock and roll or hip hop, we have to, you know, people are saying things about their condition. And it we have to reach across a bridge to get people to see that. And so, the music is important, but it takes a lot. Yeah, to cross.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 36:50
Right, right. I think it's time for another song. Okay, so the second one, well, I mean, a change is gonna come. I mean, how apropos is that? by Sam Cooke, will you tell us a little bit about why this song is on the list today?
Michael Bertrand 37:06
Yeah, no, this is when you ask this is the first one that comes to mind and as I mentioned to you off of radio but if you come to my office on the campus, in a school you'll find posters of Sam Cooke a change is gonna come and I've really moved by the by by Sam Cooke because of the pain that he expresses within that song but also at the same time the hope as well that that pain will be hopefully eradicated so yeah it compasses that whole situation I think.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 37:46
Yeah all right. Well this is a change is gonna come by Sam Cooke and once again this as always this is KSUU thunder 91.1. All right well welcome back everyone. This is KSUU tunder 91.1. This is the apex hour I am Lynn Vartan. That song was a change is going to come by Sam Cook. I am joined by two historians who I am so enjoying getting into it with Ryan Paul and Michael Bertrand. And we're talking about the emergence of rock and roll and all the different cultural and topics regarding race and diversity that have that, that really contributed to that really unique and special time in history. And Michael, one of the things I'd love to ask you about is, you know, you, you've done so much research, and it has just been so incredible to hear your stories. And in your talk today. And I just wondered, I know you've worked with Elvis. I mean, you studied Elvis quite a bit, and a lot of the other great artists of the time. I wonder if there's any story that maybe is unique that stands out to you as being particularly memorable?
Michael Bertrand 42:03
Yeah, Lynn, actually, there's the thing with Elvis is he's pretty controversial, as most people realize. One of the things that I found when when I would speak to groups, and about Elvis and about rock and roll and change. If I had any, any African American participants in the audience, often they would ask me, they would come up to me after or even during, and they would ask me about have you ever heard that Elvis said, at one time that the only things that negros can do for me is to shine my shoes and buy my records? And initially, I had not heard of that. When I started doing this. I had not. And I asked him, Where did you hear that? And they would say, Well, my cousin told me or my uncle told me, or somebody told me, and I was like, what, you know, how do they know? Well, I think somebody told them have like, okay, and so it was intriguing to me. And it was actually also problematic, because if it was true helvis It said that I would have some really difficult times, you know, what I'm trying to do? And so I started tracking it down trying to track it down.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 43:18
How did you do that?
Michael Bertrand 43:19
Well, I, you know, one of the things I figured, if you're if you're going to try to understand how African Americans felt about Elvis Presley, then you need to go to the source of where African Americans were expressing themselves. And so I started looking at Black media, particularly from, again, the 1950s 1960s, particularly the the print media. And I looked through African American newspapers, I looked through magazines, and I just could not find it. And it has to be here somewhere. And I know, there was no indication as to what the date would have been, right? People just said, Elvis said this. And I'm like, when could he have said this? And so I just started continuing to look. And so I went to the Library of Congress. And I looked through black periodicals they had there. And I was looking for one particular, because I looked at so many of them. And I figured there was this one specific one that I could not find. And it was called sepia. And I went to the Library of Congress. And I was excited because they had it listed in their card catalog. Now the Library of Congress for me, I don't know if Ryan's been there, but the Library of Congress for me is like a church. When you walk into that main reading room, is like oh my gosh, you know, yeah. So I went up, took my little cardboard up to the person and turned it in with a sepia tone with the issues, you know, whatever. And they supposed to have had the whole thing. Look, but an hour later, the guy comes back to my little desk up there. And he says, has a little cord, it says it seems to be missing. I'm like, missing. I could be missing from the Library of Congress. And so anyway, so I said, you know, I can't believe this. So I ended up going over to Howard, which is also in DC, and looking there, and they had some issues, but not everything. And so I get on the internet. And this is, you know, the internet's just sort of, well, I don't wanna say taking off, it's been a while. But I wrote in to H net thing, ah, south, and I put an SOS, I said, I'm looking for this thing called CPM. And I said, I went, I went to the Library of Congress. And, you know, it was supposed to be there, but it wasn't there. And it was like, whatever. So I actually had this really interesting response from George Tyndall. And George Tyndall is like a really prominent southern historian. He was located at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, he's recently passed, he writes in, and he says, Oh, yes, CP, he goes, you know, the Library of Congress has it. You know, I just explained why free My thing is missing anyway. And that was funny, because I actually later met George Tyndall in person, and we develop the relationship. But I actually had somebody else write in. And this other person wrote in and said, Actually, I'm a freelance. I'm a freelance freelance researcher, and I do research, because I'm pretty sure I was in Chicago, and I was at the Woodson Public Library. And I could have sworn that I saw it there. I will go up there for you. You know, I'll do it for a fee. So I said, I wrote back said, Thank you, I'm getting myself over there myself, there ain't no way that I'm not going to go up there myself and find it. So I took off the next day, I contacted him and said, I'm coming over. And so I went through there. And they actually had the whole set, Sepia, in basically bound versions. And I had to go through it all. And I'll be doggone I found it. And March of 1957, it was an issue with a picture of Duke Ellington on the cover. But on the top they had, how do negros feel about Elvis Presley? And like, this guy yet? And so I went in there, and, you know, it's actually a great repository. It's like probably the biggest repository of popular materials and African American music and culture and the wisdom branch. And so I went through and sure enough, it's in there. And in the first part of the story is basically saying, you know, these, these, Sepia, first of all, is owned by. It was owned by a white man in Fort Worth, Texas. And it was basically trying to do a copy of the jet and all these. So it was not a really good quality publication. I see. So I looked at it, it basically, it basically had a thing starting off that. Well, we went out on the street. And we asked people what they thought about Elvis Presley. And do we research on sepia, I found out they had no budget. They had nothing. They basically went out on the street in Fort Worth. They went basically across the street. They said you know this, okay. And so they say that, that will I heard that Elvis said this on the admiral show, Elvis said the only thing negros can do for me is by my shining shine. The article said that someone heard that he had said the person that interviewed on the street, right, so that they had heard that it was on the show, who was very popular at the time. I did research on that. There was no Edward R. Murrow show that Elvis appeared on. He wanted Elvis to appear. Colonel Tom Parker Elvis, his manager wanted some huge fee that Murrow said we don't you know, pay fees to be on our show. He goes with an Elvis doesn't appear on your show. He never did. So somebody other guy in the same interview says, Well, I think he said it when he was in Boston. I think I heard he was in Boston. And so I traced that down to he's never been in Boston at that time. And so jet magazine, so they published it. And the big thing they said was basically one person they interviewed. What do you expect? Now for anybody like this who basically this cat was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. I mean, what else do you think? Of course, he would have said it. And that's what they said in this story. So then you have jet comes out and they do their research on this because they want to find out where this came from. And so they trace it, and the editor of it, Robinson, I think Eugene Robinson actually got an interview with Elvis in Hollywood while he was recording while he was filming Jailhouse Rock. And again, Colonel Parker never let anybody get close to Elvis. But because this was such a big issue, he did an interview. You know, Elvis said, I never said it. And people that know me know they wouldn't set it. They bought up all these other people, African American groups and stuff. I don't think he said that. I don't believe he said that. But the rumor got started. Even though even though jet Magazine ran that whole feature, saying that we don't think he ever said that he never said it. Now, to make the story even more complicated. I actually found in the norfork. Journal, a newspaper, African American newspaper. Actually, they were the ones who originated this in February of 1957. Because some kids from my high school basically started calling the the newspaper office saying, we heard that Elvis Presley said Baba blah, blah. And so, this newspaper, The norfork journal was the biggest selling newspaper in the entire southeast, the African American population. And the editor, there was a very prominent African American man who came out and said, You know, I'm not for Elvis Presley. I'm not against Elvis Presley, but I'm against anybody that slanders anybody else. And he goes, I'm telling you now, there's no evidence that Elvis Presley ever said that. But today, you know, you talk to people today even. And they will continue to say, well, somebody told me this and that, and they still believe that. But it was a great research project for me. I even got on the phone. And I told you it was the Fort Worth guy that owned it. I called his home. I found that he found that the guy I found the guy. Well, not quite. I called. And this lady answers. And I asked if I could speak to her husband. She says, My husband died. I said, Oh, well, I'm calling about sepia. Don't ever call me again. I said, Okay, sorry. So she wouldn't talk to me. No.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 52:11
So but well, that story is fantastic. On so many levels. I mean, first what you went through as a researcher to track it down the story itself. And I mean, all those threads that amazing. Thank you for sharing that.
Michael Bertrand 52:25
Thank you for having me. Share it.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 52:27
I love it. That's fantastic. Well, we I mean, this has just been so much fun. But unfortunately, we're already out of time. And I just have my last question that I always ask all of my guests. And that question is what's turning you on this week? You know, and it could be anything. It could be a favorite song. It could be a favorite food. It could be a movie, it could be a TV show, it could be anything. It's just more of just a fun, personal question. So Ryan knows about this question. So I'm gonna ask you first and then we'll go to Michael. So, Ryan, what's turning you on this week?
Ryan Paul 53:03
What's turning me on this week is I am doing my research in preparation for a study abroad that I'm doing with Patrick Clark and Mike Mauer, World War Two and aviation. So I've been fully immersed in the bomber culture, the B 17th. And some are deeply involved in a book called masters of the air. And did you know that the first blood spilt by American aviation bomber guys in World War Two was because of a pigeon? Well, not death, but but that's the first.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 53:38
Oh, okay. And tell me the title one more time.
Ryan Paul 53:42
Master of the air by Donald Miller.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 53:44
Oh, that's a cool one. Thank you for that. Michael, what's turning you on this week?
Michael Bertrand 53:50
My visit to Southern Utah. No, this this. This has been a great week for me. And I really appreciate inviting me over all of y'all. And I've enjoyed it tremendously. It's been a great experience I'll never forget.
Dr. Lynn Vartan 54:05
Thank you so much. It's been an honor to be here. We will look forward to the next time. I hope that that happens soon. Well with that we'll sign off for this week. Thanks, everyone. We'll see you next time on our little show the apex hour Thanks so much for listening to the apex hour here on KSUU thunder 91.1. can find us again next Thursday at 3pm for more conversations with the visiting guests at Southern Utah University, and new music to discover for your next playlist. And in the meantime, we would love to see you at our events on campus. To find out more, check out suu.edu/apex Until next week, this is Lynn Vartan saying goodbye from the apex hour here on thunder 91.1