The new biopic Elvis covers the early career of Elvis Presley and his enormous influence on American culture. Elvis popularized the black art form of rock and roll to a large white audience in a racist society. He horrified some viewers with his sexually suggestive dance moves. And, as American literature scholar Taylor Hagood writes, it helped make karate an obsession among many Americans, especially poor white people in the South.
Elvis began studying martial arts while stationed in the United States Army in Europe from 1958 to 1960. He studied with Jürgen Seydel, known as the father of German karate, and with Murakami Tetsuji, a Japanese instructor living in Paris. In the 1960s, Elvis began to incorporate his karate skills into his film and stage performances. In a semi-autobiographical sketch on his television program ’68 Comeback Special, he fought off the attackers in a karate-influenced dance.
Hagood argues that karate was especially appealing to men like Elvis, who grew up in poverty, surrounded by threats of violence, and who had reason not to trust the justice system to keep them safe. Elvis’ father had served time in prison for forging a check. At the same time, karate’s emphasis on discipline—and the avoidance of violence if possible—resonated with certain Southern ideals of masculinity and honor.
Beyond the potential for unarmed self-defense, karate encourages the development of an inner-based sense of self, even in the face of stigma and hardship. When Elvis’ wife Priscilla left the marriage, Hagood writes, it damaged the public image he had carefully cultivated of a happy family. At this time, he devoted himself more fully to karate, eventually earning an eighth degree black belt.
Hagood writes that Elvis films helped expose more Americans to karate, paving the way for the American martial arts movie boom of the 1970s. Harum Scarum (1965), for example, introduced the theme of karate empowering oppressed groups to fight against government corruption. This motif continued in iconic 70s movies like Enter the dragon and Jones black belt, in which karate empowered not only poor or institutionally powerless men – white, Asian, and African American – but also women.
Elvis’ influence on karate continued through the Tennessee Karate Institute in Memphis, which he helped establish in 1973. The school catered primarily to low-income and middle-class white people. Hagood argues that the connection between Elvis, karate, and southern white poverty extends into the 21st century, including in cultural references like the animated series Johnny Bravo (and spin-offs), in which one of the prominent characteristics of the titular unemployed Elvis-like figure is his practice of karate.
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By: Taylor Hagood
Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 26, no. 3 (April 2004), p. 1 to 13
Southern Popular Culture Association