Q & A With Daniel Wolff



The author is Daniel Wolff. He wrote You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke, and he’s collaborated with Memphian Ernest Withers in Withers’ collections of photographs, Negro League Baseball and The Memphis Blues Again. And he’s currently producing a documentary on New Orleans, called Right To Return, with director Jonathan Demme.

But today we're talking to Wolff about How Lincoln Learned To Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations That Made Them (Bloomsbury USA). The last of those 12 is Elvis Presley, and Wolff’s chapter is an insightful and, yes, moving look at the boy who became the man who would be King.

Q: There’s a whole library of books written about Elvis Presley. How does your 20-page portrait compare to his education covered in book-length biographies?

A: I've read (and kept) too many books about Elvis. (Just ask my wife.) And in order to write this profile in How Lincoln Learned To Read, I dug up even more information.

A couple of obvious comparisons to previous books: I look at Elvis only till he's 18. So, it's before he's a star and even a professional musician. It's about his coming up and ends as much more a portrait of a kid out of Mississippi who moves Memphis than it is the future King.

Second and in answer to your question: How Lincoln Learned To Read is a book about a dozen Americans, most of them supposedly well-known: Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Sojourner Truth, Henry Ford, etc. But the way these people are "known" depends on what we ask about them. I'm asking how they learned the things they needed — whether it's machinery in Ford's case or public speaking in Lincoln's — and then I'm looking to the subjects themselves to answer the question through what they've written or said. That gives you a different kind of portrait than we may have seen before.

Q: Inside the space of a single chapter on Elvis, you were distilling information, uncovering information?

A: Some of it is fresh. Or information freshly applied.

The thing that's hard about Elvis is the same problem that comes up listening to his music: We think we know it already. It gets hard to really hear "Heartbreak Hotel" because we've heard it so often: hard to understand there was a man singing that song, and he made certain decisions, left stuff out, etc.

Same deal with a biography of him. There's a myth around Elvis that's hard to pierce. We know he grew up in Tupelo, for example, and we have a pretty good picture of him as a youngster in overalls, hair slicked back. The myth says he was a country boy and kind of glides over what that means.

Well, look at Tupelo. It's a largish city, given the area. It's where the train stops. It has movie theaters. After generations of his ancestors on both sides of the family were sharecroppers, Elvis grew up in town. And I don't think he ever picked cotton or milked a cow in his life. That was huge, not just for him but for his parents: a break with the past.

Is that fresh information? In a way, I think it is. It questions the myth. Among other things, it means we see his move to Memphis differently. He's not coming from the country to the city so much as he's coming to a bigger city. And that translates musically too.

Q: You've made it a point then to emphasize elements maybe other biographers of Elvis Presley have not?

A: Yeah. Let me give you two examples from Elvis' time in Memphis.

The first is his attendance at Reverend James Hamill's Assembly of God Church over on East McLemore. Other biographers have tended to emphasize that Elvis went because the Blackwood Brothers sang gospel there, and he studied them hard. I agree. But I also tried to look at what he found when he arrived: what was going on at that church.

Reverend Hamill was using radio and newspapers (and would use television) in a way that led to today's modern evangelical outreach. He was broadcasting his church and his faith. Compared to that, there was a shyness to Elvis' Tupelo religion: a sense that the congregation was poor, outcast, not seen as respectable.

Reverend Hamill advertised. Like the Blackwoods, the church had some flash. And to a teenager like Elvis, this way of worshipping offered a model for stepping up and proclaiming who he was and what he believed, for finding his voice.

The second example is the Presley family's move to the Lauderdale Courts in Memphis, which Peter Guralnick's biography, for example, describes as a kind of gateway to the American dream. That may be, but I wanted to know what that dream was. And if you read the goals of the people who ran the Courts, they believed in a certain sort of social uplift where the "deserving poor" were essentially isolated in the Courts, kept away from the "undeserving poor" and taught how to be middle class.

Elvis' mother Gladys got special mention for how well she waxed her floors. Like Humes High School, the Lauderdale Courts had a vision of what a good American was and tried to mold its occupants to fit that image.

The Presleys were incredibly grateful for a clean, safe place to live. But I wanted to emphasize that this grooming of the young Elvis to be respectable cut a number of different ways. He both bought into it and kicked at it, as he did the great American dream.

Q: And for readers who think they know Elvis every which way, you want them to realize what about the man?

A: I want them to learn how he learned. I want them to get a sense that his success wasn't inevitable, that he paid attention to some things and ignored others, that it wasn't the myth of rags-to-riches but a kid growing up in the midst of the Depression. What it meant for his parents to get out of the cotton fields and finally own a refrigerator. I'd like readers to ask how his family managed to live in a black neighborhood and not end up stereotypical racists. To wonder what it felt like for Elvis to see another sharecropper's son turn into Hank Williams. I tried to provide readers with the information to reconsider who the guy was.

Let me put it this way: Who said: "At one time, when I got out of school, I thought I wanted to be a doctor or something in the medical profession ... but I didn't have money to go to college"?

Answer: the same guy who sang "If I Can Dream." A guy we still have lots to learn about.


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