An unidentified woman sits outside an Elvis souvenir shop in Memphis Tuesday. On Wednesday fans converged on Graceland, the Memphis home of the entertainer, to celebrate his 79th birthday. Photo by: Birney Imes Buy this photo.
January 11, 2014 9:42:23 PM
In William Saroyan's short essay "Finlandia," he writes of going into a music store in Helsinki and asking the girl working there if she knows "Finlandia," the symphonic poem by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Saroyan, then 27, had heard the piece five years earlier and had been haunted by it since. The girl finds the record and puts it on the turntable. She and the writer stand and listen to the music, both of them transfixed by its beauty. Afterward Saroyan asks the girl's English-speaking coworker if she knows the composer. She does and gives him a phone number.
The story, written in 1935, gallops across the page at a crazed, stream of consciousness pace. Here's the beginning:
"I was walking down Amnankatu Street in Helsingfors when I saw two horns, a cello, a violin and a picture of Beethoven in a store window, and remembered music. You go out into the world and all you see is telegraph poles and city streets, and all you hear is the train moving and automobile horns. You see multitudes of people trying to do all sorts of things, and in restaurants and in the streets you hear them talking anxiously. You forget music, and then all of a sudden you remember music."
Memphis is a long way from Finland and the distance between the music of Sibelius and Elvis is even further, but if you will bear with me.
Tuesday of last week I was in a store; though not a music store, it exists because of music. And while I wouldn't call the experience moving, it was interesting.
The place was jammed with all things Elvis: shot glasses, sunglasses, refrigerator magnets, wigs, books, backscratchers; it seemed limitless. I resisted a bottle of All Shook Up hot sauce ($5.99) and a red plastic toothpick dispenser with a silhouette of Elvis on it ($21). Elvis blared from ceiling-mounted speakers. Near the cash register I admired a box of embroidered Elvis patches, the kind you used to see on the shirts of men who worked in filling stations.
Then, on what may turn out to be the coldest day of this new year, I walked up Elvis Presley Boulevard, nodded to the woman huddled in the gatehouse and headed up the winding drive leading to Graceland. Blue lights lined the freshly painted curb; a funky, life-sized nativity scene (which, like everything in Graceland, looks like it was made in 1955) was still in place, as were eight gold metallic Christmas trees across the front of the mansion; workers in navy parkas with fur-lined hoods were setting up tents for a birthday party the next day. The King would have been 79.
The house was closed, but I took a whirl through the Meditation Garden where Elvis, his parents, Gladys and Vernon, and his grandmother are buried. Also there, is a small stone memorializing Jesse, Elvis' twin brother who died at childbirth.
A couple of men were standing in front of the house taking pictures. As it happens, they are from Finland. Marko Humia and Sami Leppajaryi live in Kupio, a town of about 100,000, four hours northeast of Helsinki. Both are members of the Elvis Fan Club of Finland, which has about 1,000 members. That is where they met.
This is Marko's 10th trip to Graceland, Sami's seventh or eighth. Marko, 42, owns a small grocery store. Sami, a teaching assistant, met his wife on a pilgrimage to Graceland with the Finnish fan club. They were married in Las Vegas in 2010 in -- you guessed it -- an Elvis-themed wedding. They have an 18-month-old child, who Sami will take care of while his wife and a friend travel to Graceland a few weeks from now.
Both Sami and Marko say Elvis has been in their lives for as long as they can remember.
"The main thing is the music," Marko said, explaining his passion for Elvis.
Later, when I remembered the Saroyan story, I wondered how these lovers of Elvis felt about their nation's most famous classical composer. I put my question in an email to Marko. In his reply he wrote:
"It's funny, when we were leaving from Memphis Sami and I, for some reason, talked about Sibelius and his home, Ainola. I've never been there but Sami said it is Finland's Graceland. Sibelius and his wife lived there most of their lives. Both are buried there.
"To many Finnish people and me also, Jean Sibelius is synonymous with "Finlandia," our unofficial, second national anthem. His compositions were very important for Finnish people when Finland was in war against Soviet Union, first in winter war 1939-1940 and later 1941-44."
Perhaps every country has its own Graceland, a shrine or place of pilgrimage representing something so important that people travel from afar to pay homage. For Sibelius it may have been the power of his music to inspire and unite during a time of war. For Elvis ... who knows what it was? Maybe it was shaking hips that wanted to shake. Or moving hearts that longed to throb. Whatever it was, the music has endured and new generations are able to hear the old music and be moved by it.
Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.