“In the Ghetto” by Elvis Presley paints a picture of poverty that was eye-opening to late 1960’s audiences. Released just five years after President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement of the War on Poverty, “In the Ghetto” sounds like a modern narrative in which a child born into the cycle of poverty dies as a result of police violence. Presley’s delivery makes clear the inescapable quality of poverty. As the “child” dies from a gunshot fired by a policeman, his own child is born. The original child is a young man at this point, but according to the lines of the song, is life has been one bitter event after another.
The release – – the timing and choice of song, is unusual in that Presley could have done a number of upbeat, or romantic songs that were more like the rockabilly hits that helped him to carve a place in American music. In some ways, “In the Ghetto” can be seen as a risk. Now, almost 50 years later, the song remains an arguably thoughtful example of Presley’s work after his 1968 comeback. The song appeared on the album “From Elvis in Memphis.”
“In the Ghetto”: sound and history
In terms of soundscape, Presley’s voice gets the attention in the sparse soundscape. The emotional husk of the iconic singer’s voice portrays the “gray Chicago morn” and the rest of the environment that defines the world of a mother with too many mouths to feed. She will birth the young man who will die by police violence. A barely there drum tattoo and gentle guitar comprise the instrumentation. Soulful backup singers echo the title phrase and key ends of other phrases. The spare approach to song craft allows audiences to focus on the lyrics.
“In the Ghetto” was written by Mac Davis and has been recorded by a host of other artists since Presley’s version. Interestingly, Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie also recorded a version of the song in 2007. The song was made available on iTunes.
The title of the album, “From Elvis in Memphis,” refers to Presley having recorded the work at the American Sound Studio in Memphis. Other hits that were recorded at the same session include “Suspicious Minds,” Kentucky Rain,” and “Don’t Cry Daddy.” The first two of the aforementioned songs would employ some of the same techniques used in “In the Ghetto.”
“In the Ghetto” became Elvis’ first top ten hit since the mid-1960s. It peaked at No. 3 on US charts, but made it to No. 1 on Cashbox and No. 8 on US Easy Listening charts. It was No.2 in Canada and the UK.
For fans of Presley, “In the Ghetto” is probably not a forgotten gem. But for those who have a less ardent relationship with the late singer, “In the Ghetto” is a treasure of sorts, that shows Presley trying new things stylistically and succeeding.