by Sarah Baird
Sarah Baird is a writer, editor, and petit four aficionado living in New Orleans, Louisiana, whose book on the culture of Kentucky sweets will be published in January 2014. The Edible/Audible series explores the intersection of Southern food and music from a historical and pop culture perspective. Follow her on Twitter: @scbaird.
Album: King Creole film soundtrack (1958)
Artist(s): Elvis Presley and Kitty White
You’d be hard pressed to find a pop culture icon more closely associated with his or her favorite snacks than Mr. Peanut-Butter-Banana-Bacon-Sandwich himself, Elvis Presley. Outside of his furiously gyrating and swoon-inducing hips, Presley’s gastronomic habits and profound love of Southern cuisine are perhaps among the most legendary pieces of his enduring lore. It’s no surprise, then, that The King recorded his fair share of tunes about all kinds of edible delights. These songs, which were usually performed surrounded by a small army of dancing teen girls with high ponytails, appeared in any number of fungible films spanning the late 50s and early 60s. My personal favorite, “Do the Clam,” from 1965’s Girl Happy, has an elaborate dance number (involving dips, somersaults, and the like) that I’ve tried to recreate on multiple occasions—unsuccessfully and embarrassingly—at parties.
While “Ito Eats” and “Song of the Shrimp” have their kitschy charms, the real standout in the Elvis culinary cannon is “Crawfish,” from the 1958 film King Creole. Filmed partially on location in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1957, King Creole hits on all the typical tropes of a misunderstood rapscallion tale: impoverished family in the big city, good-for-nothing crooks (including a sleazy nightclub owner played by an alarmingly young Walter Matthau), and the dashing rouge—that’s Elvis—torn between two women. Presley, who received his draft notice a month before filming began, was able to defer his enlistment in order to finish the film, and officially joined the U.S. Army twelve days after shooting wrapped.
“Crawfish”—widely referenced as an Elvis solo work—is actually a duet with little-known Kitty White. An under-the-radar jazz singer from Los Angeles, White’s popularity peaked in the late 1950s when she provided the soundtrack for a dreamy river scene in the West Virginia–based classic, The Night of the Hunter. Her lilting vocals on “Crawfish” are equally praiseworthy, providing well-timed, impassioned staccatos that balance out the smoky croons of Elvis with near perfection.
“Crawfish” is the opening track from King Creole, featuring Elvis singing from a tiny window over a French Quarter that’s still rubbing the sleep out of its eyes. Before Elvis enters with the melody, a cadre of African-American street vendors cry their wares—potatoes, berries, and gumbo—nodding to a common practice of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. (In fact, the culinary historian Jessica Harris has written extensively about the cries of African-American street vendors in Southern port cities. Thanks for the history lesson, Elvis!)
The song tells the tale of a journey to the bayou to rustle up crawfish for dinner, with the crawfish becoming amusingly personified over the course of the track (“Now take Mr. Crawfish in your hand/He’s gonna look good in your frying pan”) from catching to eating. The song also goes to great lengths to discuss the importance of size, cleaning, and preparation of the crawfish, but ultimately notes that, “If you fry him crisp or you boil him right/He’ll be sweeter than sugar when you take a bite.”
The lasting impact of Crawfish is still rippling down through music history. Joe Strummer of The Clash noted that “Crawfish” was one of his favorite Elvis works and covered it at solo shows. More importantly, King Creole is the movie Elvis consistently acknowledged as his best silver screen effort, and I’d like to think the lasting echoes of “Crawfish” have something to do with it.