Elvis and Mundt

Russell Baker

June 10, 1993|By Russell Baker

DAVID Halberstam's new book about the 1950s -- titled "Th Fifties," believe it or not -- makes them feel heavier with significance than they felt to me while they were still in progress. This shows once again how hard it is to see the forest when you spend 10 years up to your eyeballs in trees.

From his commanding vantage high upon a peak in the faraway 1990s, Mr. Halberstam can see, for instance, that Elvis Presley was one of the most important phenomena of the 1950s, in a class with the invention of the hydrogen bomb.

Maybe he was. Halberstam makes him out to be the father of rock 'n' roll, sort of a musical counterbalance to Dr. Edward Teller, famous as the father of the H-bomb. Rock is big, all right. Since Elvis, John Lennon has replaced Dr. Albert Schweitzer as the world's favorite good wise man, and rock 'n' roll musicians now pound it out in behalf of many a noble attempt to save the world.

When Elvis first came over the horizon, I hadn't a guess that something really big was coming with him. In fact, I didn't even think of things as really big in that dim era. Just plain big was still good enough.

"Really big" was a dimension being pioneered by Ed Sullivan whose televised vaudeville show on Sunday nights I rarely encountered despite Sullivan's weekly promise of a "really big shoe."

Mr. Halberstam, incidentally, pays proper due to Ed Sullivan, judging him another human landmark of the 1950s. He probably was, but I wish Mr. Halberstam could have been a little more generous to the decade and overlooked its association with Ed Sullivan.

The same goes, incidentally, for Sen. Karl Mundt, one of the more tiresome, depressing and mean-spirited statesmen of the 1950s. The reader has barely waded into Mr. Halberstam's big book when he bumps smack into Mundt, a 1950s figure I, for one, had happily not thought of for 30 years.

You'd think Mr. Halberstam could have been kinder to the 1950s. After all, he would eventually have to confront us with Senators Joe McCarthy, Bill Jenner and Herman Welker. I was resigned to revisiting that gang. But Karl Mundt? Karl Mundt, David? Was Karl Mundt necessary?

But back to Elvis, who did not appear as a shaper of American destiny when I first encountered his music, but as a pleasant relief from the raucous new music with which my young sister was assaulting the household.

With an authentic tin ear, I was ready to hate any music that sounded the least bit unorthodox. I hadn't even liked Benny Goodman when he had all the other kids jiving on the drugstore corner in 1939, for Heaven's sake. "The Old Rugged Cross" was my idea of good listening. "Redwing." "Home on the Range." Go ahead: sneer.

So when kid sister started bringing home these strange recorded noises on labels nobody had ever seen, I was outraged. "Call that music?" I screamed, practicing, without realizing it, to be a parent in the 1960s.

It was rhythm-and-blues by black groups mostly forgotten now, though they were the real pioneers of what was to come much later when Elvis cleared the way. I put it down to my poor young sister's having a tin ear which prevented her from enjoying real music, and after long bombardment by it I was delighted when she brought home a really nice record.

The singer bore the improbable name Elvis Presley. What an improvement! There was even a hint of music in it. It even sounded vaguely amusing. Little sister was growing up at last, I thought. Before long she'd enjoy "The Old Rugged Cross" as much as I did.

Later when there was the farce with Ed Sullivan -- would Ed permit Elvis' pelvis to be photographed while wiggling? -- they both seemed to have produced some much-needed social satire on a prim and dull society grown leaden with Karl Mundts.

If so, it wasn't Elvis' intent. He didn't seem to have much intent. Mr. Halberstam says he really dreamed of becoming a movie star, not a singer. Neither Elvis nor I, back there deep in the woods of the 1950s, sensed great movements afoot.

I had evidence last Saturday night, however, of what the Elvis movement has wrought. While being marinated in deafeningly amplified rock at the baseball game, I asked my son, "You know this song?" "Sure," he said. "Hum it for me," I said. He gave me one of those looks. Humming days are gone forever.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.


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