Are White Blues Singers Appropriating Black Culture?
You probably recognize the man in the picture: singer Elvis Presley. He is sometimes referred to “the King of Rock and Roll,” and you have likely heard some of his songs. One of his most famous songs is “Hound Dog.” There is a reason I’m bringing it up, but we’ll get back to that later. First, let’s talk about Blues, and then consider why white singers singing the blues feels like cultural appropriate. ESPECIALLY in the case of the song “Hound Dog.”
The Origin of Blues
The Blues originated among Black people in the South during the 1860s, in the form of work songs. We’ve already talked about the commodification of the Negro spiritual, but the Blues in the form of work songs were also commodified, when Black prisoners were recorded singing work songs. As we all know from our lovely Spelman education (specifically, that from African Diaspora & the World), we know that incarceration is the new enslavement. It was back then, and is now. Just like Negro spirituals, the early Blues were a response to oppression. Later Blues artists evolved from work songs, but kept the same themes of
Definition of Cultural Appropriation
Okay, now that we understand the value of the Blues genre to the Black community, let’s define cultural appropriation. From Dictionary.com, the definition is
“the adoption or co-opting, usually without acknowledgment, of cultural identity markers associated with or originating in minority communities by people or communities with a relatively privileged status.”
Now, there are some who totally dismiss the idea of cultural appropriation, and instead celebrate the idea of “cultural mixing.” However, those two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can enjoy and use something from another culture without appropriating it. Problem is, when you get praised for doing something from another culture, and the culture of origin is taunted or looked down upon for the thing they created, that’s where the problem starts.
Elvis the Culture Vulture
“Hound Dog” is one of Elvis’s most famous songs. What if I told you he didn’t originally record it?
In 1953, African American Blues singer Big Mama Thornton recorded the first version of “Hound Dog.” The song was decently popular in the right groups, but far from mainstream. The song was recorded by other artists, but also did not achieve much notoriety. That was until Elvis encountered the song and reworked it.
Elvis’s version of the song went #1 on the pop charts, #1 on the R&B charts, #1 on the country charts. It sold 10 million copies. Big Mama Thornton did not receive a dime.
This sounds like cultural appropriation to me.
Run Big Mama Thornton her check. That’s all.