Elvis Presley was an important figure in popular music and culture at this time in the 1950? s; Willie Mae Thornton represents personal, artistic, and ethical values admired by Walker. The author bases her characters, Traynor and Gracie Mae? Little Mama? Still, on these real people but abandons biographical accuracy to amplify the symbolic meaning of each character. In this process, Elvis 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.' Also, "his hair is black and curly and he looks like a Loosianna creole.' Traynor even has a manager who resembles Elvis's Colonel Parker, and the character lives in a grand mansion much 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, which was very 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. The similarities are so STRIKING. The character Gracie Mae both wrote and recorded the song that Traynor bought and remade. Although Willie Mae Thornton recorded "Hound Dog,' Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a team that created many more hits for Elvis and other rock performers, wrote it.
Thus, Gracie Mae, her song, and Traynor connect in a way 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. Since the real Smith died when Thornton was 10 years old, Bessie and Gracie could not realistically have fought over a song, and therefore 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.' At later meetings with Gracie Mae, Traynor continues to ask her to explain it. It is now painfully obvious that since he did not write the song himself, Traynor attempts in vain to get the meaning from Gracie Mae by showering her with gifts. 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; it appears as ." ? 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.
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 fusion 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 practical, down-to-earth, 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.' Traynor is a professional success and a personal failure; Gracie is just the opposite. 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. As an artist, Walker stresses the values Elvis, Bessie, and "Big Mama' represent.
She is writing fiction, not biography. Thus, the cultural types on which they are based reinforce the key characteristics of Gracie and Traynor. Gracie realizes that Traynor fails to live for himself, to find his own roots and validity. This tragedy is compounded by the fact that an American public that rejects the real thing treasures his imitation of Gracie? s art. 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 country. ? 32 f.