Gillian Welch is remarkable. She writes songs that sound a hundred years old and sings songs that are a hundred years old like they’re brand new. It’s like she exists in some kind of chronological vacuum, some kind of endless now. It’s more than just the Buddhist concept of living in the now. It seems as if time has stopped where she is, but keeps going forward. With her regular collaborator, David Rawlings, Welch mines a deep musical history for the bits of gold left behind and melds them into music that feels timeless.
The moment of “Elvis Presley Blues” is the moment where one man changes the world. But the acknowledgement here is that is wasn’t just the moment when Elvis walked onstage and “shook it like a chorus girl,” but all the moments when everything stood still, and the world shifted to accommodate a new reality. The moment Elvis appeared, the moment he died. The moment when John Henry beat the steam drill (a legend, sure, but one that says a lot about America). At the end of the verses, when Welch and Rawlings’ voices blend and build, there is desperation. There is something big at stake here, but it’s hard to say what. Elvis’ unique musical combination of white and black–rock and roll–becomes not just a style, but a matter of life and death: “He shook it like a holy roller, baby, with his soul at stake.”
Greil Marcus believes that there is more to rock music than just music. He believes that Rock & Roll matters, that it carries with it the weight of American culture and history. So do I. And so does Welch, if “Elvis Presley Blues” is anything to go by. Elvis himself is an example of this. He was a white man influenced by the black musicians he lived around and was friends with; radio stations wouldn’t play him at the beginning because he sounded black. He changed the face of American culture with a blending of race that was ahead of its time. There are many African-Americans, some scholars, that believe Elvis stole black music and exploited it for his gain. But I have trouble seeing how he stole something he lived with every day. The music industry and Colonel Tom Parker did exploit the sound (and the man) for their own gain, but Elvis believed. This song carries the weight of American race relations within a fable about the single biggest rock star, ever. The America that comes into view when you hear “Elvis Presley Blues” is the Invisible Republic that Marcus wrote about so masterfully, an America that exists just beneath the surface of strip malls and mega churches. An America that is filled with wonder and mystery and myth. An American where time has stopped and Elvis is forever entering the building.