Elvis Presley: Tupelo
THE TWO-ROOM SHACK IS STILL THERE. The East Heights Garden Club looks after it. They make sure the grass is mowed and the bushes trimmed and the paint job respectable. They open the door for a few hours each afternoon, and you can walk through the tiny rooms for a quarter.
The night after Elvis died, people gathered in front of the shack and stared silently at the bouquets of flowers on the porch. The night was soft and moist, and the people spoke in whispers. A surprising number of the cars that pulled into the church parking lot across the street were campers and pickups. Larry Shaw stood off to the side, watching them come and go. He was 22 years old, blond and a local musician. “There’s been people here all night, from all over. You just missed a big shot, the guy who owns the big market down the highway. He was just here, payin’ his respects too,” Larry said. “You know, I keep thinking about little Elvis sitting out on that porch and fooling around with his guitar on a night like this, and his mama sitting in that porch swing there, listening to him. It’s hard to believe he started right there.”
A prim, middle-aged schoolteacher named Sara Wiygul and her daughter Mona, a college student, approached the house. Sara said she had gone to see Elvis at the Tupelo Fair in 1956. “I don’t like the way they’re saying now that he came from poor white trash,” she said, staring at the house. “They were poor all right, but they weren’t trash. If they were trash, he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did.”
“What was it like at the fair in 1956?” I asked.
“Well,” she hesitated and smiled. “Very exciting.”
“Did people go wild?”
“Yes, I guess you could say they did.”
“C’mon Ma . . .” Mona said.
“Well uh, not wild, but I enjoyed it.”
A bouncy woman named Pat Nichols, who had dropped by to collect her two sons, said she was also at the fair in 1956 and, “I screamed and hollered, and I’d do it again, too.” She had grown up in the neighborhood and her older brothers played with Elvis. “They all used to ride this pony we had named Dinah. Yes sir, we all grew up here in the ghetto together — and it was a ghetto then, too. Used to be a lot of shacks like this one, but they tore them down. Before they got fancy and started calling this area East Heights, they used to call it East Tupelo and it was the meanest part of town. They all was afraid to come over here, our boys was so mean. Not that they raped or murdered or anything. . . . We was just the most southern part of town, if you get what I’m saying,” and she drove off into the soft night as others arrived to stand vigil at the house.
The drowsy little town Pat Nichols remembered, dappled with loblollies and draped in kudzu vines, is long gone. Less than 6000 people lived in Tupelo when Elvis was born in 1935, and more than 27,000 do now. Even during the Depression, though, the town was a commercial center known for its civic boosterism and its relative moderation when it came to the race issue — clearly a town with a future if the times ever got better. In 1948, just before the boom times began, Vernon Presley found work in Memphis and moved there with his young family, part of the mass migration out of the rural South and into the big cities. But during the past 20 years, the migration has turned around and small cities like Tupelo have flourished. There is an air-conditioned shopping mall downtown now, a string of fancy hotels, an airport and even a couple of Chinese restaurants. Tupelo has become suburbanized and homogenized. If it weren’t for the barbecue stands along the highways, the preponderance of pickup trucks and the way the natives speak, it might easily be New Jersey.
Over in East Heights, most of the shotgun shacks (“You could stand in the front door and shoot a shotgun out the back door.”) have been replaced by graceful brick ranches where the new executives live. The First Assembly of God Church, which Elvis attended as a child, has moved from a shack to a modern, if modest, brick building. The young pastor, Dean Tilley, arrived in town only a few years ago, but he proudly leads visitors down to the basement to see the old pulpit where Elvis did his first singing.