Researcher Joseph Thompson joins Brian to discuss one of the most famous haircuts in American history, when Elvis Presley’s signature locks came up against the rules and regulations of the U.S. military.
MALE SPEAKER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
JOANNE: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.
BRIAN: Welcome to Backstory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Brian Balogh.
NATHAN: I’m Nathan Connelly.
JOANNE: And I’m Joanne Freeman. On BackStory, Brian, Nathan, our colleague Ed Ayers, and I, all historians, take a topic and explore it through three centuries of American history. Today, Nathan, Brian, and I are going to tackle the subject of hair.
BRIAN: And we’re going to start in 1958. At that time, all young single men were at risk of being drafted into the US army, but there was one man whose conscription caused a national uproar. Hundreds of concerned citizens even wrote letters to President Dwight D Eisenhower. Historian Joseph Thompson says that many of them pleaded the same case. This is Thompson reading from one of those letters.
JOSEPH THOMPSON: I really don’t see why you have to send him in the Army at all, but we beg you, please, please don’t give him a GI haircut. Oh, please, please don’t. If you do, we will just about die. And they signed the letter, Elvis Presley lovers.
BRIAN: That’s right. The matter at hand, making it all the way up to Eisenhower’s desk, was Elvis Presley’s famous hair, but the pleas from his female fans were ignored.
On March 24th, Private Presley reported for duty. Nearly 70 newsmen were on hand to capture that anxious moment.
MALE SPEAKER: His lucrative career as rock and roll king interrupted for a while, Elvis Presley begins his military service at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, just another GI to become acquainted with those interminable army line ups.
BRIAN: The following day came the moment of truth so many of his fans feared. Presley climbed into one of Fort Chaffee’s barber chairs.
MALE SPEAKER: Uncle Sam doesn’t play favorites, and those celebrated sideburns, which were his trademark, are sacrificed to military uniformity.
JOSEPH THOMPSON: He’s making jokes in the barber’s chair as this civilian barber is cutting his hair and he supposedly picks up some of the hair and blows it out of his hand and says, hair today, gone tomorrow.
MALE SPEAKER: Locks his fans would love to touch, shorn and scattered on the barbershop floor.
JOSEPH THOMPSON: He gets up to leave and it’s kind of an embarrassing moment for Elvis, because he has to come back because he forgot to pay this civilian barber the $0.65 that he owed him, which, as he was raking in millions of dollars a year, he could certainly afford.
BRIAN: Elvis’s hair had been cut down in its prime.
NATHAN: OK, Brian, why exactly is this so important to his fans?
BRIAN: Well, Nathan, Thompson says that at the time, Elvis’s hair wielded quite a bit of power.
JOSEPH THOMPSON: At one level, we can just consider his hair as a symbol of this male virility, right, and sexual potency that he performed so well.
BRIAN: So he’s got lots of hair.
JOSEPH THOMPSON: He’s got lots of hair. Yeah, exactly. And if you watch early footage of him, his hair moves like almost as much as his hips, right? And it’s always kind of dropping down over his eyes, and he’s always having to push it back. And we should note that Elvis was really kind of copying black hairstyles, and particularly a black hairstyle known as a process, right? And, ironically, the process itself is a black imitation of white hair style, so with Elvis, you have this kind of cultural exchange coming back around.
So in the mid-50s, when you’re having these rampant fears about juvenile delinquency, and it’s also the end of Jim Crow segregation, I mean, Elvis really represented the culmination of a lot of white middle-class fears, and not just in the South. There was ministers, especially, from all over the country who were denouncing Elvis leading this slippery slope into what one of them called jellyfish morality.
BRIAN: In other words, issues of sex, race, and even the moral compass of the nation were all wrapped up in Elvis’s wavy, pomade-laden hair. That government-issued haircut threatened to neutralize his dangerous image. And Thompson says that that new do, and his time in the service, did change Elvis’s image. In the long run, it made him more acceptable to white middle-class America.
JOSEPH THOMPSON: Frank Sinatra famously trashed rock and roll before Elvis went into the army, but his daughter Nancy was there at Fort Dix, New Jersey, when Elvis came back in 1960, on behalf of her father and presenting Elvis with a box of shirts, kind of welcoming him into the fold of mainstream pop.
Yeah, with a box of shirts. And Elvis’s first public musical performance when he got back was a TV special with Frank Sinatra in May of 1960.
BRIAN: In a way, Thompson says, those fans who were writing letters to Eisenhower had legitimate fears. Elvis did have something to lose, and so did they.
JOSEPH THOMPSON: The overt sexuality, the kind of non-conformity. So if you take that away from their idol, from the person that they love so much that they would write the president in his defense, then that feels like an affront to them. Elvis was, in many ways, was a– you could think about him as a conduit for young women to express their own sexuality, right? And so if you take that away from them, that’s not only Elvis getting a haircut, that’s a repression of them as well. And so whenever we kind of land on these historical moments where hair seems important, it’s because people are making an important political statement through that hair.
BRIAN: So he really was on to something when he said hair today, gone tomorrow.
JOSEPH THOMPSON: I believe he was, yeah.
NATHAN: Whether you spend minutes or hours on your hair, or if you’re like me and you don’t spend any time at all, those strands or lack thereof of say something to people around you. And as the Elvis case shows, your hair can tell people that you want to stand out or that you’re striving to fit in, but throughout American history, regardless, hair has been wrapped up in identity, reflecting social tensions of the day.