BY M. SCOTT MORRIS
Roughly two and a half years ago, Charles “Wsir” Johnson struck a vein of interesting stories crying out to be told.
“It was an oral history training class and somebody mentioned Shake Rag,” Johnson said. “People started talking and we were awed by Shake Rag.”
The BancorpSouth Center in Downtown Tupelo sits in the area that used to be Shake Rag, an African-American community that was torn down as part of an urban renewal effort in the 1960s.
Some believe the area played a pivotal role in shaping Elvis Presley's musical development. Johnson's film, “Blue Suede Shoes in the Hood,” seeks to tell Elvis' story as well as many others he gleaned by interviewing dozens of people who called the area home.
“It's the Elvis story and the Shake Rag story,” he said. “You can't separate the two.”
The 30- to 45-minute movie – Johnson and his editor were busy with finishing touches as of press time – will be shown 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday, June 7, at the Lyric Theatre in Tupelo. Some of the people featured in the film will be on hand for question and answer sessions.
“A lot of white people have misconceptions about Shake Rag and a lot of black people have misconceptions,” Johnson said. “Everybody had these great memories of it and some not-so-great memories of it. Shake Rag was really a cultural center for the African-American community.”
The film will be shown on the same weekend as the 2003 Elvis Presley Festival, but it's not officially part of the festival because Johnson did not seek approval of the film by officials with Elvis Presley Enterprises, which sanctions the local festival.
“I didn't want them telling me to take something out or put something in,” Johnson said. “I didn't want to go there.”
Shawn Brevard, a Tupelo Community Theatre board member, said there should be built-in interest for “Blue Suede Shoes in the Hood.” TCT is one of several co-sponsors for the showings.
“Even people who live here will be amazed to find out things about their community,” she said. “I loved the little bit of it I got to see. It certainly gave me a perspective I didn't have.”
In his research, Johnson didn't find much about Shake Rag in the city's written record, so the film relies on the oral history of people who grew up in and around the area.
“All the stories started lining up, and the people didn't know each other, you know?” he said. “You try not to rely on one person to tell the whole story.”
Of the nearly 45 people interviewed for the film, 13 or 14 will end up in the version to be shown June 7.
Johnson intends to keep tinkering with the film for a long time to come. It's currently scheduled to be shown at the Oxford Film Festival, June 19-22, and the Indie Memphis Film Festival, Oct. 3-6.
“Elvis fans around the world really want to know more. People in Tupelo want to know more,” he said. “People can come together on Shake Rag history.”