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music friday: elvis, “an american trilogy”

Since we’ve been in Hawaii, perhaps a Hawaiian artifact is called for, Aloha from Hawaii. “An American Trilogy” is Mickey Newbury’s mash-up of a Confederate song, a Union song, and an African-American spiritual. Greil Marcus did some of his greatest writing when he examined Elvis’ performance of the song:

Elvis recognizes that the Civil War has never ended, and so he will perform the Union.

Well, for a moment, staring at that man on the stage, you can almost believe it. For if Elvis were to bring it off -- and it easy to think that only he could -- one would leave the hall with a new feeling for the country; whatever that feeling might be, one's sense of place would be broadened, enriched.

The problem, of course, is that by 1973, if not earlier, Elvis had become a blank slate onto which we could project our fantasies. And while Elvis the artist was as great as any popular singer of the 20th century, he didn’t quite keep up his standards in his later years. Not to call too strongly on notions of authenticity, but in much of Elvis’ best music, you hear a real person reaching out to his audience. In much of his most impressive music, though, you hear a performance … a great one, but a performance nonetheless. And it’s certainly possible that we in the audience cared much more than the King did about the meaning of songs like “An American Trilogy”. As I once wrote in a review of Marcus’ book Double Trouble, which examined Elvis and Bill Clinton,

The Elvis who sang "American Trilogy" is the same Elvis who put out an entire album of himself jabbering on stage, the same Elvis who might follow up a performance of "American Trilogy" with an uninterested version of "Funny How Time Slips Away." Elvis, as a cultural figure, might have performed the Union, but even Elvis pulled back from the act itself.

Here is the King from Hawaii:

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