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The Daily Tar Heel

Professor emeritus brings Elvis Presley back to life

Former UNC professor Joel Williamson researched Elvis Presley extensively for a biography, which focuses on his southern roots.

Former UNC professor Joel Williamson researched Elvis Presley extensively for a biography, which focuses on his southern roots.

Unlike other tributes to the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Williamson’s book discusses Elvis as a product of Southern culture — much like Williamson, himself.

“As I learned more about his life I wanted to feel what he felt there,” Williamson said in an early letter to his editor at Oxford University Press, Susan Ferber. “To the extent that I am a Southerner, a male, a son of farmers who came to town, I had a head start.”

A retired Lineberger professor of southern studies and race relations at UNC, Williamson has researched Elvis for 20 years, seeking to connect with his hometown roots. He moved to Memphis to walk the same streets as Elvis, visited his birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., and made 14 trips to his Graceland estate.

What separates Williamson’s book from other Elvis biographies is its focus on the southern origins of Elvis’ stardom.

“In my writing I sought to offer a reading of the life of Elvis Presley and the lives of girls and women in the 20th century in the South and in America,” Williamson said.

Williamson, who lives in Carol Woods Retirement Community with his wife, had help from Ferber and Donald Shaw, a professor in UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Ted Ownby, a scholar of southern studies at the University of Mississippi, wrote the book’s forward.

Williamson’s “Elvis” is unique — he’s a southern man made popular by the girls of the South, Ferber said.

“The book gives life to the fan base in addition to the figure,” she said. “He tapped into Memphis society in new ways that gave rise to the book.”

Ferber said while Williamson solicited Shaw’s help with his large manuscript, the text was always his.

Williamson asked Shaw, a friend and colleague, to help edit his book, and for the past seven years the two have worked to condense the 1,100 pages of research.

“He is a tremendously insightful scholar in southern culture,” Shaw said.

Shaw noted Williamson’s link between Elvis and women of the 1950s. Southern women were emerging from a period of economic depression and World War II, and their lives were confined socially, Shaw said. They were expected to be chaste and proper, he said, until Elvis liberated them.

“Elvis represents such a unique part of southern culture, and southern culture was influenced by Elvis’ music,” Shaw said.

A southern scholar who teaches in Mississippi near where Elvis was born, Ownby said he was intrigued by Williamson’s approach.

“The book shows that Elvis Presley’s identity got stuck at a very early age. He got stuck as the object of a female desire — when that had a range of challenging meanings, but he chose to stick with it,” Ownby said.

“It’s a great biography — and great biographies are powerful in themselves,” he said. “Joel Williamson never says that Elvis is an example of something. I found that after I read this book, it stayed with me.”

So maybe Elvis hasn’t left. Not yet, anyway.

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