In the Ghetto – Elvis Presley

A little baby child turns into a hopeless young man.

The story behind the meaningful song “In the Ghetto” comes from the childhood of its writer Mac Davis, an American country music singer and songwriter. But the voice that made it famous was that of the King of Rock’n Roll, Elvis Presley. In very few occasions Elvis used his music to pronounce strong social messages to the masses, and this is one of them.

Released in 1969 with “Any Day Now” as flip-side, the song was first given to Elvis on a tape with 19 songs written by Davis, of which  three were recorded in Memphis. The King definitely didn’t need his famous moves to make the song “In the Ghetto” a powerful hit. The song talks about a poor black kid born in a ghetto in Chicago, whose life and future are already written by destiny. He will eventually grow up hungry and angry, he will start stealing and fighting for survival and end up killed at the same time that another unfortunate baby is being born in his same condition.

Mac Davis was in his late twenties when he decided to write a song titled “The Vicious Circle” referenced to a black boy he used to play with when he was young. That kid born and raised in a ghetto is the boy the song talks about, whilst the term ghetto was just becoming to be commonly used. Since Davis could not find any rhyme with circle he decided to go for in the ghetto when he heard a guitar lick from his friend Freddy Weller.

The song reached n. 3 in the Hot 100 chart and has seen a number of covers throughout the years from Lisa Marie Presley to Marilyn Manson, from Dolly Parton to The Cramberries and it has never lost his social relevance, indicating that America still has a long way to go before black people can have the same social and economic opportunities as white people. The recent scandals of police violence against black people is a sad example of the current situation.

The word ghetto, especially in American culture, is nowadays associated with poverty and it often refers to run-down neighbourhoods mostly inhabited by uneducated African-Americans. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the first use of this word dates back to 1611 to describe a quarter in a city, chiefly in Italy, to which the Jews were restricted; it would derive from the Italian “borghetto”, meaning a little borough. Another OED definition shows the word later acquired a broader meaning: “A quarter in a city, esp. thickly populated slum area, inhabited by a minority group or groups, usually as a result of economic or social pressures; an area, etc., occupied by an isolated group; an isolated or segregated group, community, or area.” Not by chance, the ghettos were largely used during WW2 to group Jews all over Europe under Nazi domination.

As references to ghettos generate many controversies and racial debates, it is not a secret that young people, of whichever race, living in certain areas abandoned from society, struggle in their day-to-day life and are more likely to end up in dangerous and criminal environments, that vicious circle Davis referred to, than their more ‘fortunate sons’ and privileged peers. America is a country where money equals power and opportunity, and it often matters where you are born. This is a well-known issue and it must be tackled to give anyone the chance to choose his own future.

Lyrics

As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto
And his mama cries
’cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need
it’s another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto

People, don’t you understand
the child needs a helping hand
or he’ll grow to be an angry young man some day
Take a look at you and me,
are we too blind to see,
do we simply turn our heads
and look the other way

Well the world turns
and a hungry little boy with a runny nose
plays in the street as the cold wind blows
In the ghetto

And his hunger burns
so he starts to roam the streets at night
and he learns how to steal
and he learns how to fight
In the ghetto

Then one night in desperation
a young man breaks away
He buys a gun, steals a car,
tries to run, but he don’t get far
And his mama cries

As a crowd gathers ’round an angry young man
face down on the street with a gun in his hand
In the ghetto

As her young man dies,
on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’,
another little baby child is born
In the ghetto

Categories
Sounds from the Bucket
Francesca Aloisio

Francesca is both an International Relations graduate and a dancer living in Rome. She is particularly interested in international issues, intercultural learning and culture sharing, as well as music and arts. She is currently a consultant for the UN agency IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) in the communication division.

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