Back When Elvis Came To Town
Imagine the time before recorded sound. I don’t just mean before Jolson told us we ain’t heard nothing yet. I mean before wax cylinders and piano rolls and music boxes. I mean even before sheet music, which is a way of recording sound, a way of ensuring that you will play the same thing as I played as he played as she played.
Imagine the time when all you had was the musician, and the singer. When they stopped, there was silence. When you sang, when you played what you remembered they sang and played, it wasn’t quite the same. Only you didn’t know that because you only had your memory to work from, and you were playing and singing what you remembered.
Imagine you heard of Elvis, you heard of this great singer with the power to hold an audience in the palm of his hand, and you had no idea what he sounded like. Bass or treble, lilting or defiant, all you had was what other people told you, what other people thought and remembered.
And then one day Elvis came to town.
The story goes they used to send runners from village to village, saying he was on his way, he was seven days away, three days away, one day away. It gave the village time to prepare. You must remember that there were no such things as weekends. Each day, you did what you had to do. If that was ploughing or carving or brewing or weaving, that was what you did. If there was a festival, everyone did that instead for the day, whether it was a Saturday or a Wednesday. So it didn’t matter what day the singer came, as long as the village knew, roughly, which day it would be.
For most of the village, it would be the only time they would ever see him. He travelled the length of the country, on foot, occasionally on horseback, not missing a single village or hamlet. If they had no hall big enough, he would sing in the square. If they had no square, he would sing in the field. If they had no field, he would stand in the mud in front of their houses and sing. The story goes that he sang for everybody in the same place. He didn’t go to the powerful man’s hall or the priest’s chambers. He stood where all the people could hear him, and he sang.
Of course everyone sang then. If you didn’t, there was no singing. If your neighbour didn’t play his flute, there was no fluting. If your cousin didn’t thrum out a rhythm on a stretched animal hide, there was no rhythm.
But this, this was special. This was the legend. No-one had the faintest idea what he sounded like, but everyone was excited.
The runners from previous venues would be full of stories about the hospitality their villages had provided, and the expectations the singer would have. This sometimes sent the next village into a flat spin. Perhaps he would not sing if they couldn’t match their neighbours. It was not unknown for them to send spies into one of the villages before theirs to check exactly what was on offer. Sometimes the news was good (‘I tell you, we feed our chickens better than that’), sometimes not (‘Well find another suckling pig, and see tell the bloody baker to work all night if he has to’). But the singer always sang, whatever the provisions.
The feast was always held before the singing. It was the tradition, but no-one except the singer was quite sure why. If one singer met another (there was more than one, but our singer was the most legendary) and the subject came up, they would smile wryly and say, ‘Would a whore lie on her back with nothing in her hand?’ There were stories of singers who had not been deemed worth their feast (not ours, obviously) and had gone hungry if they hadn’t had the foresight to dine before.
The entire village would turn out to hear the singer. The old, the young, the musically gifted and the tone deaf. Stuffed with however much of the feast they had managed to get their hands on, relaxed on a balmy summer’s afternoon or huddled against rain or even snow, they sat or stood or lolloped or perched in branches, waiting for the performance to begin.
Now consider this, kid.
There were no microphones. No megaphones. No means of amplification whatsoever. No miraculous sound enhancing amphitheatres. These days even a pub singer gets a mike. Then, all Elvis had was his voice and his charisma. His ability to make people believe. To make the message their runner carried to the next village: whatever you’re planning, he’s worth more.
And he sang.
And here, kid, is the killer.
Because we don’t know.
He might have sung the equivalent of Hound Dog or of Dido and Aeneas. The audience may have clapped along or sat silent and transported. His voice may have been Enrico Caruso or Ed Sheeran. No recording exists. They couldn’t even write a review.
When it was over, it was over, and all they had were their memories, good or bad.
And that’s what they passed on. The stories of the runners and the feasts and how the voice made them feel. Because that, kid, is what makes a performance. You can listen to the studio recording and the live recording and compare how he sang the bridge in both and argue till you’re blue in the face about which does more justice to the song. But a performance is not for the microphone. A performance is for the audience. It’s about the journey they had to get there, the stuff they bought at the kiosk next to door H. It’s not about whether you hit the high C perfectly, it’s about whether, however you hit it, it made the hairs on the backs of their necks stand on end. If it didn’t, they won’t want to buy the recording to see if you were pitch perfect. Their memories will tell them you were crap.
So get out there, kid, and make damn sure their memories tell them otherwise.