Gay Song Seven – “You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see”
Note: for this series of postings, the term 'Gay Song' refers to music written to/for/by or about Gay men or women. A second category also deals with music identified as Gay because it speaks to the heart of the Gay Experience.
So to make this easier, I will call them Gay in the 1st Degree (to/for/by/about), or Gay in the 2nd Degree (like Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow).
This classic hit is both Gay in the 1st and 2nd degrees!
By the 1930s, the popular black slang expression for having sex made its debut in songs. Alberta Hunter had a hit with My Castle’s Rockin’ (and yes, castle is slang for a part of the female anatomy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpOtXGFS4Gw), and later in 1938, Ella Fitzgerald released Rock it for Me, which cemented the sexual slang with a type of ‘swinging’ music (swing itself being another way to describe sex https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmdVTJPbdTs).
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s 1957 Jailhouse Rock is one of the most explicit pop songs to ever deal with same-sex relations. If you don’t believe me, get a copy of the dictionary The Slanguage of Sex and you will see the lyrics positively bristle with a fun-loving tribute to what can go on behind bars.
At this point we should talk about a few things. For us, men dancing has become a provocative sight. Part of that is a cultural reaction to post-Stonewall resistance where men in love did not care if they were seen dancing together. In the knee-jerk oppressive straight world, it became an act of defiance to their rule of ‘order’ and a powerful tool to spread fear that it was taking over; in their dirty minds the image of men dancing equaled the sight of two guys having sex. However, in the 1950s it was considered harmless and cute. The evidence is abundant. In 1955, the Hollywood film Blackboard Jungle, fanning adult fears that teenagers were a dangerously criminal subset and out of control, opens with an incredibly sweet moment of ‘good boys’ dancing together in the schoolyard before classes started. Another strong piece of evidence is the music video made in 1957 to promote Elvis’ single release of Jailhouse Rock on television. This is attached below, and you can see it involves the inmates cutting a rug, including a tender face-touch after the lyrics "You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see."
Secondly, how were same-sex partnerships in prisons viewed at the time? Lucky for us, we have a firsthand account. Jonathan Ned Katz conducted an interview with one of the victims of the Boise Witch Hunt of 1955; it was an incident in which Gay teenagers were rounded up and imprisoned. The young man says this about being transferred to the State Penitentiary: “The captain of the yard was an old friend of my family’s. I’d know him all my life. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Now, just go out there and find yourself a jock, and settle down, so we don’t have any trouble with you.’ I said, ‘How am I going to settle down with somebody when I’m locked up in my cell twenty-four hours a day?’ He said, ‘Well, don’t worry about that right now.’” It turns out this family friend began working behind the scenes to arrange for a suitable protector for the young victim of homophobia. “[Four days later], as I was going through the chow line, I saw this gorgeous guy handing out silverware. You wore anything – they didn’t pay attention to how you dressed – and he was wearing a shirt that was completely open, with sleeves torn out. He had been a prizefighter. […] He said, ‘You got any magazines?’ ‘No,’ I answered. […] Later he brought me a big stack of magazines and shoved them in my cell. […] Before the month was out, Larry and I had found a way to become lovers.”
So now that we know viewing men dancing was innocent at the time, and that same-sex partnerships were seen as good and stabilizing elements for prisoners, we can focus on the lyrics of Jailhouse Rock. Meant to pass as ‘straight’ to the uninitiated, it’s incredible just how many of the words are synonymous with sex among males. Here’s a small breakdown.
Intercourse: wail, swing, rock, crash-boom-bang, nix (nicks; slang for the buttocks).
Oral sex: sing, play, blowing, saxophone; trombone (references to the male member).
Purple has a well-known association with Gay men, so the song’s “Purple Gang” could simply mean the fellows dancing (having sex) with one another. In Slanguage, on page 155, appears this about another of the song’s lyrics, the word kicks: “sexual tastes; like the phrase ‘whatever turns you on.’ The meaning was immortalized in the pop song Route 66 by Chuck Berry – ‘Get your kicks on Route 66.’ The song was taken up by the Rolling Stones in the sixties and the meaning still survives. Compare with [get your] ROCKS OFF.”
So then going to page 230, the entry about getting your rocks off says: “likely derived from the U.S. black expression ‘rock and roll’ = sexual intercourse."
As for Elvis himself, he was pretty open about liking the boys, that is until his career took off and his ‘people’ tried to keep him more discreet. After documenting the singer was not interested in sex with women (“preferring to watch TV and talk to his girlfriends”) Keith Stern goes on to say this about him: “In his 2003 book, Elvis: The Hollywood Years, author David Bret documented affairs with men, including actor Nick Adams. […] Elvis’ stepmother Dee Presley also refers to these [relationships] in her unpublished manuscript The Intimate Life and Death of Elvis.”
If you wish to investigate further, I’d point you in the direction of reading about the singer’s relationship with Dennis Hopper. The actor was just starting out in Hollywood and connected the singer with lots of out guys in town at that time, like James Dean. Hopper and Elvis stayed intimate friends until the singer’s death.
Also see the released FBI file J. Edgar Hoover kept in his desk drawer on Presley. The incident when Elvis was in the Army and stationed in Germany is very telling. Namely that the soldier and his entourage had a local hairdresser coming on base and bringing young men to them for sex and other fun. The FBI was drawn in when the hairdresser began trying to blackmail the singer.
The following link has the full lyrics for Jailhouse Rock.
So, what do you think?
 The Slanguage of Sex by Brigid McConville and John Shearlaw, 1985 London.
 Gay American History, 1976 New York, ps.179-180
 Queers in History, 2009 Dallas, ps.369-370