When Bob Dylan visited the famed Sun Studio in Memphis a few years ago, a guide pointed out the spot where Elvis Presley stood when he recorded his first record, “That’s All Right.”
Dylan walked over to the spot, dropped to his knees and kissed the floor.
Dylan performed that act of homage because he believed that spot and that moment opened frontiers of expression.
Elvis recorded “That’s All Right,” the song that launched his career and brought the rock ’n’ roll era from a smolder to an inferno, 60 years ago – on July 5, 1954.
It’s always seemed fitting that it took place after the Fourth of July. It’s hard to imagine it happening before independence occurred.
When we Americans celebrate our nation’s birth, we often pay tribute to our military triumphs and our wealth, both of which are worthy of note. But many other nations in history have known both power and prosperity.
Few have done what our country first did: loosened constraints on self-determination and expanded the boundaries of what one could dream and achieve. We shattered the notion that ancestry was destiny, that our hopes for our lives and what we wanted them to mean had to be confined by what had come before us.
Elvis’s story is but one example. The son of an ex-convict father and a fidgety mother, he bounced from shotgun shacks to subsidized housing during his childhood and adolescence, but in his lifetime transformed American culture and, at the peak of his fame, made himself one of the three most famous figures on the planet. (Muhammad Ali and Mickey Mouse were the other two.)
Another son of a poor and illiterate hardscrabble farmer received less than a year of formal schooling named Abraham Lincoln remade himself as America’s greatest president. He also somehow became the greatest persuasive writer this nation has ever seen.
Another child of the 19th century, a gay journeyman reporter with both brass and a knack for self-promotion – he published a private letter of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s as a testimonial to his work – became our country’s finest poet. When Walt Whitman published “Leaves of Grass,” he changed our idea of what poetry could be and gave voice to a vision of this country so large as to be limitless.
Then there’s the story of the peculiar young man from Oxford, Mississippi, who changed his birth name from William Falkner to William Faulkner for no easily discerned reason and sometimes wore a cape around the small southern town that was his home. His fellow townspeople called him “Count No-Count” and laughed at him, but for nearly 40 years he poked, probed and explored America’s pained histories of slavery, race and regret. Along the way, he made himself a Nobel Laureate and America’s greatest novelist.
Nor should we forget the African-American girl born in poverty to a teen-age mother. Oprah Winfrey was raped at age 9 and became pregnant out of wedlock at age 14 – she lost the child – but through force of will and with a tremendous gift for connecting with people became the most powerful figure in modern communications.
Partisans from both political parties can point to their own homegrown examples. The son of an alcoholic and not particularly successful shoe salesman, Ronald Reagan reshaped himself first as a movie star and then as a political leader who ushered in a new era of Republican and conservative dominance. The biracial son of a single mother, Barack Obama shattered racial barriers and made good on America’s ageless promise of inclusion to all people yearning to be free.
I could go on, because the list of examples is long and varied, but I think the point has been made.
When we light the fireworks this Independence Day, we should give a little thought not just to the people who fought to preserve that freedom, worthy though they are of our devotion, but also to the people who pushed to fulfill the promise of that freedom.
We don’t have to drop to our knees and kiss the ground where an American dream took flight, but we should do what Bob Dylan did. We should pay homage to those who helped expand our notions of what our lives and hopes could be.
Maybe even should be.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.