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Alice Walker's "Nineteen
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"Nineteen Fifty-five" is the opening story in Alice Walker's 1981 collection You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down. Early reviewers identified its two principal characters, Traynor and Gracie Mae "Little Mama" Still, with Elvis Presley and Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton.(1) Elvis is an important figure in popular music and culture; Willie Mae Thornton represents personal, artistic, and ethical values admired by Walker. The author bases her characters on these real people but abandons biographical accuracy to
amplify the symbolic meaning of each character.
In this process, Ebas becomes an interloper destroyed by stealing what he does not understand. The Thornton character is poor but authentic, and she succeeds as a person even though her career flops. Thus each character stands for an idea that helps develop the theme of being true to one's self. Examining how Walker turns Elvis and Thornton into fictional characters provides insight into her creative method.
The most casual reader will note similarities between Traynor and Elvis. Like Elvis, Traynor gives away Cadillacs and houses. The character serves in the army in Germany. He is a singer who performs to screaming teenagers and punctuates his songs with a "nasty little jerk ... from the waist down."(2)
"His hair is black and curly and he looks like a Loosianna creole."(3) Traynor even has a manager who resembles Elvis's Colonel Parker, and the character lives in a grand mansion like Graceland.
Walker's Gracie Mae Still is based on the blues and rock singer, Willie Mae Thornton. In the story, Gracie sells Traynor a song for $500; his version of it, closely patterned on hers, becomes a hit and triggers his rise to fame. In 1956, Elvis recorded "Hound Dog" on the RCA Victor label. "Big Mama" Thornton had released the same song in 1953 for Peacock.(4) She has been quoted as saying Elvis's version of the "song sold over two million records. I got one check for $500 and never saw another.,,5
The short story was first published in the March 1981 Ms. magazine as "1955, or, You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down." A note near the beginning of the piece offers the following disclaimer: This story is entirely fictional. All of the incidents are a product of the author's imagination."(6) Although the
primary characters are based on real people, the caution that the rest of the piece is "fictional" should be heeded. For instance, the character Gracie Mae both wrote and recorded the song that Traynor bought and remade. Although Willie Mae Thornton recorded "Hound Dog," it was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a team that created many more hits for Elvis and other rock performers. Further, Elvis probably
picked up the song from Freddy Bell and the Bellhops rather than from Thornton. He uses a line about not catching a rabbit that they added to the lyrics she recorded.(7) It has also been noted that Elvis's manager kept Elvis away from his writers, fearing the singer's enthusiasm for new songs might spoil negotiations for them.(8) Thus, Gracie Mae, her song, and Traynor connect in ways that Elvis and "Big Mamma" Thornton never did.
Gracie, as narrator of the story, tells of once fighting blues singer Bessie Smith to keep her from taking the song. Smith is portrayed as a famous contemporary of Gracie. But the real Bessie Smith died in a traffic accident in September 1937 when Willie Mae Thornton, born December 1926, was just 10
years old.(9) Although Smith has been identified as a musical influence on Thornton, they could not have fought over a Thornton song.(10) So Bessie and Gracie are friends only in fiction.
Several times in "Nineteen Fifty-five," Traynor ponders the meaning of Gracie Mae's song. He first complains, "I've sung it and sung it, and I'm making forty thousand dollars a day offa it, and you know what, I don't have the faintest notion what that song means."(11) At later meetings with Gracie
Mae, Traynor continues to ask her to explain it. But the complete lyrics of "Hound Dog" consist of only thirty-six words in six lines taunting someone. The person spoken to is called a lowly, yelping hound, one bad at rabbit hunting.(12) Thornton says Leiber and Stoller gave her their lyrics written
on a paper bag. She claims she added "a touch of whooping and hollering" to the song as she recorded it.(13) So "Hound Dog" is too simple to confuse even the dullest Traynor.
Walker never directly identifies the song Gracie Mae provided Traynor as "Hound Dog." Its title is represented by a series of dashes in the story. The Ms. text of "1955" renders the title as "____"; it appears as "__ __ __" in the You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down version of "Nineteen Fifty-five." Neither suggests the two words "Hound Dog." Since the real song has a transparent meaning and is not named or suggested, Walker probably does not allude to it in the story. The song that puzzles Traynor is pure fiction. Thomas Wolfe once asserted that "fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose."(14) Walker seems to craft this story in ways that bear out this idea. In the work, she identifies her main characters with real celebrities but transports them from historical reality into a fictional world illuminated by the values they have come to represent as cultural icons. "Nineteen Fifty-Five" has characters based on real musicians in a plot that Walker created. This amalgam of allusion and imagination is carefully constructed with a tight thematic unity. Indeed, Walker's story teaches one of her frequently repeated lessons: people must be true to themselves.
The story revolves around a contrast between Gracie Mae and Traynor. Gracie is earthy, pragmatic, honest, fun-loving; she is true to her racial and cultural heritage. Being genuine has left her contented and resilient, but she has not achieved major success as a singer. On the other hand, Traynor
is rich and famous. His status is based on music he has appropriated but not understood. He feels guilty and unsure of himself; he keeps turning to Gracie for help. As she says, "you talk to rich white folks and you end up reassuring them."(15) Traynor is a professional success and a personal
failure; Gracie is just the opposite. Walker uses allusion to reinforce this contrast. Gracie claims Bessie Smith, whom Walker lists in the dedication of You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, as her friend. Ruby Walker, Smith's niece and close companion, once said Bessie wasn't going to change for anyone, she just wanted people to like her for what she was -- a real person."(16) And Gracie is based on "Big Mama"
Thornton, described by a biographer as "always ... true to herself and what she knows. She has been true to the blues, always singing from her heart."(17) So Smith and Thornton emerge as representatives of cultural, personal, and artistic authenticity.
Traynor's model was Elvis, who was first recorded by Sam Phillips on Sun records. Phillips is quoted as saying, "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and feel, I could make a million dollars.(18) Elvis fits this bill, basing his professional success on imitation of another culture.
The popular image of the older Elvis is that of a reclusive addict courting his own death. As a cultural icon, Presley embraces counterfeit artistic values; his fame is bought at high personal cost.
Walker's Traynor and Gracie Mae reflect Presley and Thornton as moral and cultural symbols rather than as historical figures. Gracie is authentic and viable, a good woman who can't be kept down; Traynor is bogus and vulnerable, a facade that cannot be kept up. The author cues us to this
reading.with her disclaimer that the "story is entirely fictional" and with her creation of a fictitious plot for her "real" characters." As an artist, Walker stresses the values Elvis, Bessie, and "Big Mama"stand for. She is writing fiction, not biography.
Thus, the key characteristics of Gracie and Traynor are reinforced by the cultural types on which they are based. Gracie realizes that Traynor fails to live for himself, to find his own roots and validity. This tragedy is compounded by the fact that his imitation of Gracie's art is treasured by an American public which rejects the real thing. The triumph of the artificial over the genuine, together with the racism it implies, is why Gracie observes at Traynor's death, "One day this is going to be a pitiful
(1) See, for example, Marge Piercy, rev. of You Can't Keep a Good Woman
Doum, Book World Washington Post 31 May 1981: 11, 14; and Katha Pollit, rev.
of You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, New York Times Book Review 24 May 1981:
(2) Alice Walker, "Nineteen Fifty-five," You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down
(New York: Harcourt, 1981) 7.
(3) Walker, Good Woman 4.
(4) Bruce Pollack, ed., Popular Music: An Annotated Index of American
Popular Songs, vol. 1 (New York: Adrian Press, 1964) 784.
(5) "Willie Mae Thornton," Black Stars April 1972: 69.
(6) Walker, "1955," Ms. 55.
(7) Albert Goldman, (New York: Mcgraw, 1981) 182.
(8) Goldman 195.
(9) Chris Albertson, Bessie (New York: Stein and Day, 1952) 223.
(10) Willie Mae Thornton," Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of
Blues Singers (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1979).
(11) Walker, Good Woman 8.
(12) Elvis Presley, Elvis' Golden Records, LP, RCA, 1985.
(13) Willie Mae Thornton Black Stars 69.
(14) "To the Reader," Homeward, Angel Scribner Library 9 (1929; New York:
Scribnery, 1957) np.
(15) Walker, Good Woman 14.
(16) Albertson 141.
(17) "Willie Mae Thornton," Black Stars 70.
(18) Elaine Dundy, Eivis and Gladys (New York: Macmillan, 1985) 144.
(19) Walker, "1955," Ms. 55.
(20) Walker, Good Woman 20.
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