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Sophie Abramowitz

Sophie Abramowitz is a PhD candidate in the English department of the University of Virginia, focusing on American literature, critical race and gender studies, and popular music. Her dissertation examines the role of song collection in the Harlem Renaissance. She is also an archival assistant at the Alan Lomax Archive with experience as an oral historian and radio DJ, and, along with her colleague, is currently working on a forthcoming album of field recordings of the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival.

“Singing ‘Just Because:’ Elvis’ Chimeric Americana”
Elvis Presley has long been canonized as the musician who spun Black R&B and white country into rock ‘n’ roll. But instead of citing its origins in blues and country, what would happen to the way we consider the genre if we looked, also, to the Mexican march, to Cajun swing, to Dixieland jazz, to Midwestern polka, to a collegiate fight song? What would happen to rock ‘n’ roll if we looked, first, to the Pacific? Why do we still hear rock ‘n’ roll in only black and white?

This paper both excavates and traces the movement of “Just Because”—the final track on Elvis’ first album—through multiple contact zones, from its origins in the “Zacatecas March” through the “Washington and Lee Swing,” the Shelton Brothers’ countrified “Just Because,” Cajun “Jueste Parcque” and “Jus Pasque,” polka and Christmas and surf-pop variations, to the rockin’ 1956 version by the king himself. With particular attention to the Pacific—not as a privileged point of origin, but in light of Elvis’ relationship to Hawaii and recent studies on Hawaiian steel guitar—this paper seeks to understand Elvis’ intersecting Southern accents as a contesting, multi-ethnic terrain upon which American music is built. Mapping the complex web of the recording industry, musical and community migrations, and cultural formations alive in this three-minute song illuminates the multiple accents latent in and often occluded by Elvis’ “Southern” accent.

“Southern Accents” 
This panel explores the ways in which singers’ Southern accents complicate traditional understandings of race, region, class, and belief at different points across the 20th century. Whether its iteration is intentional or not, a Southern accent aligns its performer with both the historical South—a region marked by the ongoing ramifications of slavery, Jim Crow, and a dominant political culture grounded in white supremacist conservatism—and the imagined South, a culturally constructed fantastical landscape immortalized in music from “Dixie” to “Proud Mary” to “ATLiens.” Popular culture trains audiences to hear Southern voices as part of that fantasy, turning their accents into evidence of the South’s atavistic exceptionalism in which the “grain” of the voice reflects both regional and racial distinctions. Yet to hear the Southern accent as a simple outgrowth of a singer’s unreflexive cultural or biological essence belies the artistic choice to perform that marker of regional character. Regardless of an artist’s regional roots, using a Southern accent signals a political choice to position one’s self in juxtaposition to the South and all its cultural legacies. Singers as diverse as Elvis Presley, Michael Stipe, and O.B. McClinton have performed versions of the Southern accent, rooting their art in a region heralded for its role in the construction of American music and derided for its place in the making of American racism. The singers analyzed within this panel have used their Southern voices to praise, protest, and ultimately transcend expectations about the South and the combination of race and region represented in the performance of a Southern voice.

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