Elvis Presley may be The King these days, but back when he was first showing up on the scene, folks weren’t so sure. Specifically, upper-class white folks weren’t so sure. Many viewed the performer as something of a “hillbilly,” considering him uneducated, poor, and slovenly. Presley even experienced this sort of classist discrimination during his time in school, during which children mocked him for his musical interests.
Elvis Presley was mocked in school
Elvis Presley was not born to wealthy parents. In fact his family was working class and multi-generational, often working as sharecroppers. They struggled with poverty frequently, and were religious folks.
Presley spent plenty of time attending church and local gospel groups. These helped inspire his interest in music, and he began learning to play the guitar at 11 years old. In fact, Presley often cited gospel quartets as some of his biggest musical inspirations.
When Presley was only ten years old, he performed in a talent contest. Too short to reach the mic, Presley stood on a chair and performed “Old Shep.” He won fifth prize, netting himself $5.00 in tickets to the fair.
Later, when Presley asked his parents to buy him a bicycle, they were able to convince him to go for a guitar instead — it was less expensive. Unfortunately, Presley’s musical interests were not well-received by his classmates.
Children can be cruel, and Presley’s peers often mocked and teased the performer for his preference for gospel and the blues. They often teased him as being “trashy,” and there’s a story that his classmates once cut his guitar strings.
Some felt Elvis Presley was a ‘hick’ or a ‘hillbilly’
As Elvis Presley began his rise to fame, many wealthier folks, especially upper-class white people, began to view him as a “hick” or a “hillbilly” due in large part to his humble origins, and again, because of his musical preferences.
Naturally, there was also a large racial element involved — much of the gospel and blues that Presley was drawn to originated with Black performers.
In White Trash: The 400-Year Untold history of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg addressed the way Presley was viewed early on.
“In the early years, Elvis’s musical style was seen as a mixture between hillbilly singing and rhythm and blues,” she wrote.
“He was born into poverty in a shotgun shack situated in the wrong part of town. Yet when he put a guitar in his hand … he was at once seen as defying middle-class norms and behaving as a sort of hillbilly — well suited to his new home of Tennessee,” she added.
Some were angry with his earnings
There were upper-class folks who were angry at Elvis Presley for inverting people’s expectations of what wealth could look like.
“Arkansas senator William Fulbright … complained that Elvis symbolized the class hierarchy turned upside down,” wrote Isenberg.
Others felt scandalized by his hip gyrations and leg-shaking — in 1956, Judge Marion Gooding threatened to have Presley arrested after seeing his moves on stage.
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