IN WILDERNESS is:

The Year the Music ChangedThe year is 1955. Isolated at school by her intelligence and disfigurement, troubled at home by the undercurrents in her parents' marriage, 14-year-old Achsa McEachern seeks solace in the music on her radio. After hearing a record by an unknown 20-year-old country singer named Elvis Presley, she fires off a deceptively self-assured fan letter, telling him he is going to be a star. Insecure in the world he is entering, and burning with a desire to succeed, Elvis answers her and enlists her to teach him how to use proper English.

Japanese and Italian Italian & Japanese Covers

The intimate and touching correspondence that follows chronicles their coming of age as artists and individuals. Able to confide in nobody else, they share with each other their most private dreams and fears. Elvis becomes Achsa's sounding board, as she watches her beautiful, distant mother and her sternly religious father lurch toward tragedy, confronts her own scarred mouth, and faces a shattering loss. The young singer's responses reveal his fierce, aching innocence in the year before his star burst forth, and offer a fascinating glimpse into the grassroots history of rock and roll.

[Since its publication in 2005 by The Toby Press, The Year the Music Changed: The Letters of Achsa McEachern-Isaace and Elvis Presley has been translated into Italian (Azimut, 2007) and Japanese (Poplar, 2006).A U.S. paperback edition was released by Lake Union Publishing in 2010.]

Since The Year the Music Changed was launched in September 2005 at the Center for Southern Literature's Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, author Diane Thomas has made more than 40 appearances on its behalf, including invited presentations at the Southern Festival of Books, the Southeastern Book Association, the Decatur (Georgia) Book Festival, and at Graceland on the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. Following are excerpts from reviews of The Year the Music Changed, which was named a Booksense Notable Book for September 2005.

  • Library Journal (*Starred review*) – "Touching, funny and tender. Highly recommended."
  • Publishers Weekly – "Warm, lively and immensely readable."
  • Kirkus Reviews – "Sweet and gripping. . . . A touching coming-of-age tale, deepened rather than cheapened by the heroine's connection to The King."
  • Atlanta Journal-Constitution – "May engrave itself into the memories of more readers than To Kill a Mockingbird. . . . The most satisfying novel I've read in many years."
  • Raleigh News-Observer – "A nearly impossible feat of the creative imagination."
  • The Columbus [Ohio] Dispatch — "Does the world need another book about Elvis? Maybe so, if it's as good as The Year the Music Changed. . . .Thomas pulls off the novel with panache."
  • "Tragic and beautiful, . . . I could talk to you for three or four hours about this book, because it's such a powerful story." — John Siegenthaler, host of "The Word on Words," Nashville Public Television
  • Charleston, S.C.] Post and Courier—"When McEachern writes of her oppressive, claustrophobic home life or we see Presley's goofy, big-kid joy at the purchase of a tricked-out Cadillac, those moments ring absolutely true."
  • Arkansas Democrat-Gazette – "Thomas . . . has taken the icon and made him real."
  • Nashville Scene – "You can't help falling in love with this heart-thawing epistolary novel."
  • Creative Loafing Atlanta – "Thomas nicely balances the electrifying naivete of the dreams of gifted youth with the inevitability that their actual accomplishment will fall short."

 

  • "I think it's terrific." — New York Times best-selling author Pat Conroy, quoted in "What I'm Reading," in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
  • "A must-read novel, fresh, surprising, full-hearted, joyful and sad." — Fred Chappell, former North Carolina Poet Laureate
  • "Startling in its beauty! The pitch here is perfect. The whole novel sings." — David Bottoms, former Georgia Poet Laureate
  • "A tender and often very funny evocation of yearning, love, disillusionment, joy, and, above all, the hard and redemptive necessity for change." — New York Times Bestselling author Anne Rivers Siddons
  • "A stunning achievement. . . . It is soul-touching and memorable, and the writing is simply dazzling." – Terry Kay, author of To Dance with the White Dog
  • "A bittersweet, funny, bighearted book." – Joshilyn Jackson, author of gods in Alabama
  • "A novel that unerringly depicts a pivotal time in American culture. More importantly, Thomas has just as convincingly rendered the timeless intricacies of the human heart." – Ron Rash, author of One Foot in Eden

Diane Thomas reading at The Performance Space in La Tienda. Local authors are invited to read each month. Visit www.ThePerformanceSpace.com to learn more about this.

  1. Brown vs. the Board of Education was decided late in 1954, ushering in the slow process of school desegregation in the American South and the movement for civil rights. It has been said the civil rights movement would not have come about nearly so early nor so forcefully, had it not been for the advent of rock and roll. Discuss the ways rock and roll music might have hastened the budding civil rights movement of the mid-1950s.
  2. What role does race play in The Year the Music Changed? Why is it an undercurrent rather than a dominant theme?
  3. Discuss incidents of the blurring of racial lines in The Year the Music Changed. What does Penelope symbolize in the story?
  4. The book depicts women in relationships with men as subservient, even abused. Do you believe Achsa will break this mould? Why, or why not? How has her Aunt Mavis ensured that she herself will not fall into this pattern?
  5. What is the author's attitude toward beauty? What attributes does not being beautiful foster in Achsa? Are they gifts, compensations, or detriments?
  6. What is the significance of Colonel Parker entering Elvis's life so soon after his Cadillac burns?
  7. Why is Achsa so drawn to the city of New York?
  8. There are three points in the story where characters experience unusual release – Achsa, when she sees Elvis sing in Mississippi; Jacobson, when he tells Achsa his story; and Achsa, when she finally allows herself to cry. What do these three releases have in common? How do they affect the characters involved?
  9. Compare Achsa's relationship to her "inside voice" with Elvis's relationship to his. How has Achsa's attitude toward her "inside voice" evolved by the story's end? Why was Achsa able to realize her innermost dreams, while Elvis was not?
  10. How does the epigraph from Sara Teasdale's poem, "Those Who Love," apply to the characters in the book? Think particularly of "the fates fighting in somber pride." Which of the characters in the book love most truly and deeply?

Introduction

On August 6, 1977, just three weeks after the publication of my biography of Achsa McEachern-Isaacs and two years to the day after the tragic auto accident that took her life, an ordinary-looking package wrapped in brown paper arrived at my office.

I was out of the country, so the parcel sat for three weeks on my desk. On opening it, I discovered a large, battered Hav-A-Tampa cigar box with the words “Grammerar Lessons” gouged into the lid. Two wide rubber bands held it securely closed. Beneath one was tucked a small, cream-colored vellum envelope that contained the following handwritten note:

Dear Dr. Gelber,

I read in the papers where you wrote a book about Achsa McEachern-Isaacs. She must have meant a great deal to you for you to write about her. She meant a lot to me, too. That is why I want you to have these. I knew her when she was 14 years old. I kept them a long time.

Wishing you all the best.

Yours truly,
Elvis Presley

As Mr. Presley’s death had dominated the previous week’s news, I of course suspected a hoax. Yet the note’s wording touched me. I opened the box and found it crammed with literally dozens of letters, all apparently written to Mr. Presley by a young Achsa McEachern more than twenty years before. Creased and dog-eared, they gave off a faint odor of Old Spice, the popular aftershave of my youth.

Unwilling to let excitement get the upper hand, I pocketed several of them, along with Mr. Presley’s note, and paid a visit to a handwriting expert across campus. In short order, he declared them all authentic: My cigar box contained pages and pages of revealing documentation, by the subject herself, of what must have been the most formative year of her life. Here was a teenage girl destined to emerge as a lightning rod for New York’s alternative theater movement, writing to a young country singer who, arguably, would become America’s most recognizable cultural icon—throughout the pivotal year that marked the birth of rock and roll.

It was tempting to re-examine Ms. McEachern-Isaacs’ life immediately, in view of this new information. On reflection, however, I determined that before bringing this correspondence to light I would search out Mr. Presley’s letters to her, leaving no stone unturned, until I either found them or satisfied myself that they had been destroyed.

Through the ensuing years, that is what I did. I accomplished other projects, of course, including a biography of actor-director Milton Isaacs, whom Achsa McEachern married in 1967. Finally, in January 2004, I received a phone call from their daughter, the singer-songwriter Jesse Isaacs Sanchez. While readying her family’s summer home in the Adirondacks for sale, she had found Mr. Presley’s letters stashed in an attic suitcase.

The correspondence is, of course, most notable for what it reveals about Ms. McEachern-Isaacs, but it is not without revelations regarding Mr. Presley, as well: The young man of these letters bears no resemblance to the bloated caricature our culture has chosen to enshrine. He is instead a true naif, a country boy as yet unshaped by the wider world. Reading his letters, I had difficulty absorbing the fact  that his life has become the subject of so much research that his whereabouts and activities on virtually every day of it are public record—information, incidentally, that assisted in corroborating the letters’ authenticity. 

Of all the documents, only one emerged as problematic. Written by Mr. Presley, it was destroyed, as described by Achsa McEachern, and then recreated by her from memory. How accurate was her recreation? For that I have no answer—only my sincere belief that, considering her stated familiarity with the original, her extreme attachment to it, and the emotionally charged circumstances surrounding its destruction, she had powerful motivation to reproduce it word for word, and did so.

One hurdle remained before the unlikely friendship between the young Achsa McEachern and Elvis Presley could become public knowledge. Considering the content of several of Achsa McEachern’s letters, I felt a moral obligation to lay out the entire correspondence for Ms. Sanchez and allow her the final determination on whether any—or all—of it should be withheld. Her courage in agreeing to its publication in toto bespeaks her deep conviction regarding the importance of the material.

The result is this volume. Though slender, it is tendered in the hope that it will represent a significant addition to the extant information on these two too-brief lives.

⎯Aaron J. Gelber, Ph.D., Department of Theatre Arts, Westbury College, Westbury, Vermont, May 14, 2004

From Chapter One, February 2—March 30, 1955

Atlanta, Georgia, Wednesday, February 2, 1955

Dear Mr. Presley:

I don’t know who you are, and I’m not a person who writes fan letters, but I thought I ought to tell you they’re playing your record on the wrong radio station. I’m talking about “That’s All Right, Mama.” I just heard it, and it really knocked me out. The trouble is, I heard it on a hillbilly station. Nobody listens to hillbilly music, and I don’t know why you think you’re a hillbilly singer. You’re not. You’re singing that new music they call “rock and roll”. Or “rhythm and blues” if you’re a Negro—I can’t tell from your voice. I can’t tell if you’re young or old, either. But I can tell one big thing. I know exactly what you feel with every word. I’ve never heard anybody sing like that.

I can pick a hit better than anyone, and “That’s All Right” deserves to go all the way to number one on “Your Hit Parade.” Unless something changes, however, I seriously doubt it will. I myself only heard it by accident when I was twisting my radio dial. It reached out from that hillbilly station and grabbed me, and I believe every rock and roll radio show in the country ought to be playing your song.

I thought you would want to know.

Yours truly,
Achsa J. McEachern

*  *  *

Memphis, Tennessee, Sunday, February 6, 1955

Dear Mr. McEachern,

Thank you very much for your letter. I am real glad you think Thats All Right deserves to be Number One on the Hit Parade show on tv. I do too. You sure know a lot about music. Do you work at a radio station?

You said you cant tell nothing about me from my voice. Here is who I am. I was born in Tupelo Mississippi on January 8, 1935. My mamas name is Gladys. She is the light of my life. My daddys name is Vernon. He is a good man that is had some hard times. My twin brothers name is Jesse Garon. He died getting born.

We moved to Memphis when I was 13. I graduated from Humes High School. It is a white high school. I am 20 years old.

If Thats All Right Mama had not started making me some money I would be a electrician by now. I was going to school for it. I got to say I did not like it much. As for me singing hillbilly I suppose sometimes I do and sometimes I do not. I like all the music there is. Even operas. I dont never try to sing one special kind. Whatever comes out that is what it is.

I really like it how you said all the rock and roll radio shows ought to be playing my record. I will take every one of your words to heart. I hope to hear from you again. If I ever get to Atlanta I sure will look you up.

Yours truly,
Elvis Aron Presley

*  *  *

Atlanta, Wednesday, February 16, 1955

Dear Mr. Presley,

Never in my life have I been so embarrassed and ashamed! I have created a horrible misunderstanding. Please believe I never meant to. I am not a man, and I do not work at a radio station. I am a girl. I go to Stephen Foster High School. I just turned fourteen.

I should have written you all that in the first place. I have no excuse, except I guess I don’t know how to write a proper fan letter. I thought it ought to say something useful. 

I guess I should not have written you at all. I mean, if I couldn’t do it right. I did try—but writing flirty words to a person I’ve never met felt silly, and when I dotted my i’s with little hearts and bubbles like the other girls, it just looked dumb. 

Also, there’s the matter of my name, a hideous bane that does not even tell you if I’m male or female. Say it, and you sound like an Italian woodcutter: “You bring-a the ax-a, I chop-a the wood.” The first Achsa was a princess no one’s ever heard of. In Second Chronicles, a Bible book nobody reads. I’m named for my great aunt Achsa. She probably hated it too.

I really can pick hit records, though. I’m not bragging, it’s the absolute truth. I bought “That’s All Right” the day I wrote you. When I told the clerk at the record store that someday you’d have a song on “Your Hit Parade,” he rolled his eyes like I didn’t know what I was talking about. Well, he was sorely mistaken. The very first time I heard “Rock Around the Clock,” I was certain it would climb to Number One. And that was months before they put it in that BlackboardJungle movie. I knew the Moonglows’ “Sincerely” would be a big hit, too—a whole year before the McGuire Sisters recorded it.

I listen to the radio every minute, especially late at night when Penelope the Dream Weaver comes on. I used to think all disc jockeys had to be men, but she’s wonderful! Her voice makes you think of a soft, silky Persian cat that lives off cigarettes and coffee—if that makes sense. She’s on wddo, Daddy-O Radio 1360. They play rhythm and blues. That’s where I heard the Moonglows.

Something else that happens late at night, stations from cities far away drift in and out of my radio like ghosts. I jam my ear against the speaker and turn the dial ever so slowly, listening for them. The tiny orange lights in the vacuum tubes look like a city lit up in the dark. If I’ve tuned in wlac in Nashville, I pretend I’m on a bus bound for “Randy’s Record Shop in nearby Gallatin, Tennessee.” If it’s New Orleans, I’m dining and dancing in “the beautiful Blue Room high atop the Roosevelt Hotel.” Sometimes on a clear night I can get Chicago. But I never can find New York, no matter how hard I try.

Oh, dear, I’ve rattled on awfully. Now I’m afraid I owe you a second apology—for boring you. You probably think I’m very silly, as well.

In closing, let me say again how sorry I am I misled you. I wish you the best of everything in life—and may every one of your records climb to Number One on “Your Hit Parade.”

Sincerely,
Achsa McEachern

P.S. That is so sad about your brother. I guess it makes you an only child like me. I never thought about it, but twins always have someone to talk to, don’t they. I wish I was a twin.

*  *  *

Memphis, Monday February 28, 1955

Dear Achsa,

I would of wrote lots sooner. We been on the road.

You cant be no fourteen! You write like you been to college! You are really something. You know that?

What you said about them radio stations it arent is not silly at all. Lots of times late at night I play like I live in them towns too. Something else I do, I go to Beale Street. Its the colored downtown here in Memphis. Something is always happening there. It dont never shut down. Music slips out the doors and windows of the clubs. I walk down the street and let it find me. It is no Perry Como music neither. It is like nothing you ever heard.

Colored church music, it is the same way. Sundays me and some boys sometimes sneak off from First Assembly and go sit in the back at this colored church just to hear them sing. Gospel is my most favorite kind of music. White and colored.

I really like getting your letters. I hope you write me again. I live at 462 Alabama Street, Memphis, Tennessee. You can write me there.

Yours truly,
Elvis

P.S. Thank you for saying that about my brother. Back in Tupelo I used to go sit by his grave near every day. Id talk to him like he had got born alive and him and me was still together. I been gone from there now seven years. I still miss him like it was yesterday.

*  *  *

Atlanta, Thursday, March 10, 1955

Dear Elvis,

Thank you for saying I’m not silly and asking me to write you at your home address. You didn’t have to do that if you didn’t want to, so I guess you meant it.

I really am just fourteen—but I’ll be a senior next year, which accounts for why I sound so old. If you don’t sound old when you’re three years younger than everyone else in all your classes, they treat you like a kid.

Myself, I think I never was a kid. In grammar school, my teachers kept promoting me up an extra grade every winter until Mama made them stop. She told them I’d never have any friends, but she was wrong. Linda Sheffield and I were best friends five whole years, until her family moved away in December. She got promoted mid-year, too, but only once. She’s sixteen. She’s got a boyfriend now and almost never writes. We used to tell each other everything. With her gone I’ve got no one to talk to.

I liked your letter a lot, especially the Beale Street part. I can picture the music chasing after you down the sidewalk, like a cartoon fog full of swirls and sparkles. I dearly wish I could hear it. I’d love hearing music that’s like nothing I ever heard before.

It’s neat, too, about the Negro church. I’m surprised they let you in, considering we don’t let them into our churches. They must be very kind people.

I’ll tell you something I’ve never told a living soul. It goes all the way back to the first time Mama let me go by myself to the ladies restroom at the movies. It was upstairs and at first all the quiet made my ears feel stopped up. Then I heard this sound, a rustling or murmuring, like birds settling down for the night. It came from a big, dark archway at the other end of the mezzanine. I was so young I pretended the carpet was a raging river and I used its fat, red roses for stepping stones to cross over.

Inside the archway, a red velvet rope was stretched across a flight of steep, concrete stairs. A gold-framed sign on the rope said, “This balcony is closed,” but it didn’t sound closed. It sounded full of whispers. I looked around and didn’t see anyone, so I crawled under the rope and climbed the stairs. When I got to the top, I could not believe what I saw. It looked like I was standing at the back of this whole other theater. Only, the aisles weren’t carpeted, and the chairs weren’t upholstered, and all the people in the seats were Negroes. (That’s what Mama says instead of “colored people.” “Knee-grows.” The way they say it in New York.)

Negroes! Up there watching the movie just like the rest of us downstairs! Who were they? How did they get in? I was sure they had to be very special—in all my life I had never seen a Negro in a white movie theater.

I took a step closer, and a girl near my own age turned and saw me. She didn’t move or make a sound. Just stared. I wanted to smile at her, but my mouth wouldn’t let me. So I stared back until I couldn’t bear her large eyes looking at me a second longer. That’s when I turned and ran. I didn’t stop until I got all the way back to the white people’s theater, where I found my seat by the projector light shining on Mama’s strawberry blonde hair.

I felt icky inside, like I’d seen something I shouldn’t have. That’s why I never told. But ever since that day, every time I go to a movie, about half way through my heart starts pounding and I have to excuse myself and climb up to the Negro balcony. When I get there, I stand in the back for a second, almost too scared to breathe. I never know if I’m hoping someone will turn around so I can smile at them or if I’m afraid to death they will. Always, before anything has time to happen, I turn around and run back down. I don’t know why I keep going up there. Every time, I’m terrified the balcony will be empty. It’s as if my heart won’t calm down until I see them there.

Now you know something about me no one else in the whole world knows, not even Linda Sheffield. I hope you don’t think I’m weird. Do you believe I’m doing wrong to keep going up there? I worry about that sometimes. I’ve thought and thought about it and I still don’t have an answer.

Sincerely,
Achsa

*  *  *

Memphis, Sunday, March 27, 1955

Dear Achsa,

I can not believe any girl smart as you is writing me! I almost did not make it out of highschool! Guess I should not of told you that, just let you go on thinking I am a brain. A regular Einstein or someone. Ha-ha.

I like it you wrote me about climbing to the colored balcony. I like it too dont nobody but you and me know. I do not think you are weird. You are a very nice girl and you are not doing wrong at all. The Lord says we only do wrong if we have evil in our hearts, and you don’t have no evil in your heart climbing to the colored balcony.

I dont have no evil in my heart on Beale Street neither. It is a beautiful place. I even buy my clothes there. At this store where all the colored singers go. They are all sharp dressers. Now I am too. I pull on my black pants with the satin stripe and put on my pink jacket, and I can feel their songs inside me like a thunderstorm. I never before said that. Still it is a true thing.

You told me something about you. Here is something about me. One day I am going to make enough money to buy my mama and daddy a big house and a Cadillac. Only, that arent is not the half of it. I am going to do something really big. I know it. I can feel it in me like the voice of the Lord. The singing is just a road getting me there.

I think what it is is I am going to be a movie actor. I want that more than anything in this world. I know I will be good at it, same as how I always knowed I could sing.

You ever seen East of Eden? I seen it twelve times. I aim to be just as good a actor as that James Dean. Him and Marlon Brando they are the best. They dont never do no phony stuff. That is going to be me too.

You are such a smart girl maybe you can help me. If you want to that is. I got to learn to talk good. I just lately come to understand how much that means.

What happened is this big deejay put in a word for us with Arthur Godfrey, and last week me and the boys flew all the way to New York City to try out for Arthur Godfreys Talent Scouts on tv. I dont mean to brag or nothing. Its just that is how it come about. We saved all our money for a whole month to get there. I had not never rode in a airplane before. It takes some getting used to.

Turned out we didnt make it onto the show. We didnt even get to meet Mr. Godfrey. Them tv people treated us like dumb hicks that come riding in on a mule wagon. They was all the time snickering about how we talked. Right to our faces too. Did not even turn away to hide it.

Now I may be from Mississippi but I arent am not stupid. I do not want to sound stupid neither. Do not get me wrong. I dont aim to put on airs. It is just I dont want NOTHING not NOTHING AT ALL to hold me back if I can help it!

So I am thinking maybe every time I write you you can write me back and point out something I been saying wrong. Then you can tell me how to say it right.

If you want to that is.

I will be honest I cant pay you nothing for it right now. I am fixing to rent my mama and daddy a house. But I know I can pay later and I will.

Will you help me? Please? It would truly mean a lot.

Please write back right away and let me know. I dont want to sound stupid no longer than I have to.

Yours truly,
Elvis

P.S. I am six feet tall and got brown hair. Some folks say I look like Tony Curtis sometimes. What do you look like? I bet you are a real pretty girl.

*  *  *