remembering the king

Elvis Presley playing Las Vegas in 1969. Photo Getty Images.

Elvis Presley would be 84 years old today, had he lived past August 16, 1977 to today. He was 42 years old when he died, way too young. I’ve had a fascination with Elvis ever since a summer in Mississippi, visiting my grandmother, when I was eleven years old. I went to the movies with my summertime-friend down the road, to see Viva Las Vegas at the Lyric Theater in Bay Springs.

I’d heard of Elvis but he’d been off my radar; the Beatles had come to America that year, and my life would never be the same. My friend, however, who was a couple of years older than I was, was rabid about Elvis Presley, and cried in the theater during the movie. Cried. I thought she was nuts. I didn’t know her that well. And I didn’t know Elvis at all.

And really. Viva Las Vegas?

Over the years, though, my appreciation grew, to the point that I’ve visited Elvis’s birthplace in Tupelo twice (same for Graceland), have read Peter Guralnick’s great biographies, have watched the movies and documentaries, and have listened to Elvis’s music on repeat — especially the later hits, like “A Little Less Conversation” and “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.”

I’m not rabid, but I am definitely a fan. I appreciate the man so much now, as well as the child that became that man.

Which is why ANTHEM includes more than an Elvis sighting, when Molly and Norman get to Memphis on their cross-country trip. It includes an Elvis encounter. Elvis is about ready to leave for his career “reboot” — two weeks in Las Vegas. The New York Times wrote a good piece about it last week. “Elvis Presley Needed a Reboot in July 1969. So did Las Vegas.

You’ll have to wait until Chapter 24 of ANTHEM for more on this, including the research behind the Elvis chapter, but in the meantime, you can click on the songs above to remember the singer who changed American music. The Beatles were so nervous to meet Elvis, they called it hero worship of a high degree. (Paul, in Anthology.)

There was something about Elvis, a boy from rural Mississippi, that spoke to a rural Mississippi summertime-friend of mine, that she tried to convey to me, through her excitement and tears in that darkened theater in 1964. She knew what the Beatles knew, and what I didn’t yet know, that here was one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century. From Mississippi! Her Mississippi. Singing “Today, Tomorrow, Forever,” just to her.

Viva the King.

summer reading: Love, Ruby Lavender

Here she is, Ruby Lavender. She has quite the story to tell.

Ruby started as a picture book I worked on in the mid-1990s, in a poetry workshop I took at Frederick Community College in Frederick, Maryland, where I lived at the time. I was a freelance writer and editor, after having been a magazine editor for one fateful year.

I was also in the midst of some grant-funded oral history work for the Community Foundation of Frederick County, which took me to the most interesting places, with the most interesting voices: people over 100 years old; knife makers, farmers and farm wives, potters, artists, community activists, former mayors and police chiefs, civil rights activists, and more.

Their voices, and their stories, in concert, over the years I interviewed them, reminded me so much of the voices I heard telling tales (some of them tall) on the front porch of my grandmother’s house in Jasper County, Mississippi in the sixties.

Ruby was born because I missed them all so much, wanted to bring them close to me, and wanted to honor their memories through telling a story, just as my new friends in Frederick had honored me with their stories.

So I went back to Mississippi, like I did every summer, and this time to document a time and place. I’ve been back so many times, always back, although no one I grew up with lives there anymore.

I’ve made some new friends there, though, and they come out to see me every time I stop by. And my kinfolks live an hour north, near Jackson. I go there, too. And if I’m lucky, I wrangle one of them to go with me to Louin.



















I remember my great-grandmother, Nanny (great-great Aunt Florentine in Each Little Bird That Sings), coming out this door (it leads to the kitchen) in the early morning, after eating her toast and drinking her coffee, and walking down the steps in her long button-down dress and wide-brimmed hat, heading for the garden, which is behind me.

I remember those cousins as kids, and that cemetery as a playground, and the pie at the Bayless is still that good (like the Cake Cafe in A Long Line of Cakes).

I remember watching Sea Hunt on a black and white television in the living room at night, with all the lights turned off. I remember Miss Eula’s dentures in a glass of water by her bed at night. I remember the moths that danced around the porch light and the beez that buzzed in the car house.

I remember what it all looked like to a ten-year-old kid, what it smelled like, felt like, tasted like, sounded like, and I remember it all now as if I were still ten, that place that became a little girl’s homeplace filled with those who loved her best in the world and couldn’t wait to see her from summer to summer, every year.

Next: How did these memories turn into Love, Ruby Lavender? How did that book get written? I promise to be back soon.