Nashville author Ronald Kidd clearly believes that rock music helped end segregation. While he may not be alone in that belief, he stands out in his ability to portray his thesis in an engaging, thoughtful way that should appeal to both teenage and adult readers. The result is On Beale Street (Simon & Schuster, 244 pp., $16.99), a journey through the hell of racial division and the heaven of a newborn and transformative art form. He even brings Elvis along for the ride.
Kidd, an award-winning playwright and novelist, has mined Tennessee's rich history before. Monkey Town was his critically acclaimed fictionalization of the 1925 Scopes evolution trial. Written primarily for the young-adult market, its literary style, historical accuracy and emotional substance also captivated adults and was a worthy addition to the literature of the creation-evolution debate. On Beale Street is likewise a meaningful contribution to the history of the Civil Rights movement, providing an irresistible hook in the form of a troubled white teenager in 1954 Memphis.
Johnny Ross, the book's narrator and protagonist, is near the low rung of the white social ladder. His single mother works for a local cotton magnate, and they live in the servant's house on his property. In his spare time, Johnny haunts the local record shop, spending his limited funds on the latest vinyl. One night, against his mother's orders, he visits Beale Street, hears the blues and meets another white teenager, a young man dressed in "a glittery pink shirt, black pants with a pink stripe down the leg, and black-and-white two-toned shoes." Elvis Presley, with both his dress and his music, shakes up Johnny and the country.
Johnny wheedles his way into Sun Records, working for Sam Phillips on the night Elvis first records That's All Right, Mama. Phillips remarks, "It's not black. It's not white. It's not gospel. It's not hillbilly." This new music helps bridge the divide that runs like a wall through Johnny's life, separating him from another newfound friend, a black teenager from Chicago named Lamont. He and Lamont share adventure and hurt on the streets where everyone from their parents to the police tell them they should stay apart for their own safety. But the new music and Johnny's determination to live in more than just a white world force the issue. He soon learns that he and Lamont share much more than he ever could have imagined.
Kidd divides On Beale Street into three sections: Black, White and Gray. While the symbolism may be a little obvious, it is certainly appropriate. Even more than Elvis' pink shirt, they are the colors of the musical revolution of the 1950s, that strange and wonderful mix that helped prove we as a nation could be stronger together than apart.