What Can Hound Dog Teach Us?
Imagine a young boy meets an older man who plays a beautiful guitar. The boy then asks the older man for some lessons and the man obliges. The boy then goes off and becomes a millionaire playing some of the public domain songs he heard the older man play years before. Now let’s leave out the money part and note that this is probably how most folk — as opposed to classically trained — musicians learned to play an instrument throughout history.
So before money was involved, would anybody say the younger man ripped off or appropriated anything from the older man? Or did he just learn to play an instrument? Moreover, was there ever a musical artist that didn’t nick a lick?
Simply put — and adding money back into the equation — does the young man owe the older man an economic debt? Would your answer change if the young man paid for his lessons? What if the younger man had been ripped off by the music industry and is broke. In that case, who owes who what?
My point is that artistry and creativity are separate issues from the economics of just compensation and intellectual property. Take for example someone who cynically steals every aspect of a certain song. He or she maybe just changes some of the lyrics to a stolen song. Now further suppose the song made no money at all. Would anybody care and why not? Suppose the intention was not cynical. Suppose the song was produced as a sincere tribute or as gift to someone. Again, it is the vagueness of just compensation that matters not the sincerity or lack thereof of the artist or the art itself.
What I am advocating is that all persons should be able to pursue their muse free of any social, cultural, political or economic justice issues we may want to assign to their activity no matter how well intentioned. There is plenty of art and entertainment that offends me and my suggested solution is to simply look away. If that don’t work for you then produce your own work but don’t complain or shut down someone else’s. And the reason I believe this is because the issue is not trivial but rather a slippery slope that we ought not to start down.
The are many reasons to avoid pursuing or even arguing for aligning creativity with notions of social or political justice. First and foremost, who would it benefit and who are the culprits? As I am suggesting here and elsewhere is that the “villains” in the appropriations drama is not the artist but the industry. Especially, the industry of the past 75 years.
In the post war era boom there was plenty of consumer money to spend on things like records. But the industry and artists were still operating on older assumptions, especially about the scale of the money to be made. Moreover, the industry was literally infiltrated by Organized Crime. Add to that mix the fact that popular musical artists were still dependent on others for materials and you have a perfect system for abuse and outright fraud.
What often gets lost in these arguments is that even the most successful artists of that era were abused to staggering financial degrees. Elvis Presley was constantly low balled by his manager and forced to rely on inferior materials because of his management’s publishing arrangements. The Rolling Stones were fleeced out of the controlling rights over a huge swath of their best early materials. As wealthy as both Elvis and The Rolling Stones became they should have been wealthier still if you can believe it.
There is also a moral argument to be made in the opposite direction of the appropriations controversy. For one, who am I to judge the sincerity of an artist’s output? And does that even matter? Isn’t it more likely I am just applying subjective taste? And speaking of taste, what mega selling artists are exempt from this issue and who decides? Would anyone accuse, say, Britney Spears, of cultural appropriation? If not and she is off the hook, then why is some bar band playing the Blues and hardly making ends meet on the hook as cultural appropriators? And guess which artist of the two will get legal help from the industry that has an interest in maintaining a large revenue stream? Hint, it ain’t the bar band.
And if the only factor is money made, who sets the amount earned and why and what about the moral argument of coveting? Meaning, of what concern is it to me if someone makes even an obscene amount of money doing something that has no connection to me or my family?
Suppose we were to set artistic cultural lanes and had to stay in them. How does that make up for past injustice? And it ignores the truth of the matter about the past which is not so clean cut and, in fact, perhaps demonstrates a positive cross cultural integration that should be recognized and remembered.
Take for example the song Hound Dog. Big Mama Thornton released her version before Elvis cut his take of it. She gives it a good read using a standard Blues arrangement but, let’s be honest, this is a relatively tame novelty like number on paper. To be sure, her delivery rises above the material and — least we forget — it was a hit. In other words, if she was short changed — and she was- it was by the industry not the general public which actually appreciated her effort
Elvis’s version, in contrast, is different in two major ways. First the arrangement is Rock and Roll not Blues. More importantly, Elvis’s vocal delivery is a scorcher and that can almost be proven objectively. He was reportedly mad at Steven Allen’s treatment of him the previous night. So the story goes, Elvis tore into the lyrics to vent a little. You might even say he over did it given the aforementioned weakness of the material but that kind of performance by a hot artist is going to sell and sell it did, way more then the Thornton version.
But was any of this Elvis’ fault? Remember this was still the era of singers performing the professionally written songs of others and it was not uncommon for a second version of the same song to be released in relatively short order. I should mention the the industry at that time often released answer songs to popular tunes in an attempt to capitalize on a hot number. That is something way more cynical then Elvis did here, assuming he did anything. And do I dare mention that songwriters Leiber and Stoller were white? So what good would have come from cultural barriers? Should Leiber and Stroller have not written Hound Dog? Which artist should not have recorded it, Big Mama Thornton or Elvis? And to what end? You could choose to like both or simply prefer her version but that doesn’t mean the other should not exist.
It should also be noted that both Elvis and Big Mama came up from very similar humble beginnings to say the least. And both died relatively young after lives of excess. I point this out to underscore that they were more alike then different culturally which is often forgotten.
And while I do not know Big Mama’s attitude regarding Hound Dog, we do know her reaction to Janis Joplin, who famously covered Thornton’s Ball and Chain. She was ok with it because she recognized the authenticity in Janis’ artistry. So are you not an appropriator if you are authentic? Again, who judges that?
To reiterate, Hound Dog is just one example of the kind of rabbit holes you can fall into when you start down the road of cultural appropriation in music. There are literally thousands of similar examples and that is not to excuse some very real abuse. But as with the issue itself, even the abuses suffered are more complicated then they would appear as mentioned earlier.
My point is that the artist is the least culpable and in most cases is not culpable of anything at all, except, perhaps, a love for a certain genre of music. So, in turn, you should love the music you love and explore the history behind the different styles you love. It will be a rewarding and unlimited experience. The alternative is a stifling, limited world where choices have to be reduced to the least common denominator. In such a world, I guarantee the artists will suffer. The entertainment industry, on the other hand, will find a way to continue to thrive and make money. Now whose side do you want to be on?