Alice Walker's Nineteen Fifty-Five: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Alice Walker's short story 'Nineteen-Fifty-Five' follows the friendship between a little known classic blues singer and the Emperor of Rock And Roll. This lesson provides a plot summary and brief analysis.

Plot Summary

Most contemporary Americans have at least heard of the rock and roll singer Elvis Presley. Far fewer know about the music of blues singer Mama Thornton. ''Nineteen-Fifty-Five'' is Alice Walker's fictional account of their relationship.

The narrator of the story, Gracie Mae Still, is a one-time blues singer who lives modestly as the chronicle begins in 1955. Though Gracie had some local fame, she never made it big. One day, a young singer and his manager come to visit Gracie, to offer to buy one of her songs for this young man's exclusive use. Gracie is happy for the extra cash, and also seems to form a brief connection with the shy young man. The rest of the short story is told as dated episodes as Gracie Mae follows the young singer's career.

The following year, Gracie sees the singer on television, and describes Elvis' famous dance moves that shocked the nation on The Ed Sullivan Show. She is surprised and pleased to find that the young man, Traynor, sings her song just as she had, imitating her style.

Traynors Early Years
The Young Traynor Performing

In 1957, Traynor shows up at Christmas, and confides in Gracie how his career is really going. Though he is a sensation among his fans, and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, he really doesn't understand what his songs are about. If you follow celebrity singers today, you might have an idea that fame and wealth often bring more trouble than happiness. Still, Traynor wants to share his material success with Gracie Mae, and he gives her a new car - the first of many extravagant gifts.

Gracies Christmas Gift
Gracies Caddy

In 1960, Traynor is drafted into the Army. Being in the service and away from show business seems to agree with him, and he shares this with Gracie Mae in his letters. The young singer continues to give gifts to his mentor, though she declares that she and her extended family have enough and are blessed.

The next dated entry is 1968. Gracie Mae shares that nearly everyone is dead now: famous people like Malcolm X and people close to her like her partner J.T.. Both Traynor and Gracie have put on weight. Traynor is apologetic about his heftiness, while Gracie feels comfortable with her own larger size. If you have seen pictures of Elvis Presley, the model for Traynor, in his later years, you know that he did indeed struggle with weight as well as alcohol and drugs.

The Singer Grows Older
Elvis Presley 1968

Traynor invites Gracie Mae to his opulent home, where she meets his current wife. It is obvious that Traynor is not happy, and has never found the meaning behind his music or his life. Suddenly, he gets the idea to go on the Johnny Carson Show and sing with Gracie Mae. This appearance doesn't go well, as the audience certainly fails to react as the two friends expected. Gracie is easy-going about it, and tries to reassure Traynor. In the end, Gracie is no more famous for her music, and Traynor is still confused about the meaning of his songs.

One night in 1977, she tells her partner Horace that the boy's in trouble. And she is right: in 1977, the unfortunate and unhappy singer died. Though his fans made a show of mourning him, only personal friends like Gracie Mae Still are sad for his troubled life.

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