Musicians play the songs of other musicians all the time, calling this style “covers” or “tributes.” Never mind that they don’t ask permission or, heaven forbid, offer compensation. They just go ahead and do it anyway and there is normally no blowback from either the original composer or the first musician who recorded the song. How many people before 2016 realized they were breaking the copyright law when they sang “Happy Birthday?” They were supposed to have compensated the original artist (however, since 2016 the tune has been placed in the public domain).
What is more serious is when an artist just outright steals the work of another and uses his or her own name on the new recording. Even worse is, say, when a White musician pinches the recording of a Black blues artist, re-records it under his or her own name and does not even give a dime or a nod to the creator of the work. Sadly, this happened often in the history of blues music as these White thieves knew there would be no repercussions as most early Black blues performers did not have the finances to hire lawyers to fight back.
This concerns cultural appropriation, some critics say, which means using material from another culture without giving credit or compensation. Freelance journalist and editor of BBCNewsbeat Irahman Jones writes (2016) about Elvis Presley’s cover of “Hound Dog,” previously recorded by black artist Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, though it was written by the White team of Leiber and Stoller: “With a song like this, it’s easy to see why Elvis often gets levelled with accusations of appropriating black music. Why is he seen as the father of rock ’n’ roll music when he didn’t invent it? Why did it take a good old white boy to popularize a genre [the Blues] which black Americans had been playing for years, and in the process become one of the richest people on earth? It’s clear to see cultural appropriation going on here; Elvis clearly stole music from the black culture of the time, passed it off as his own, and hugely profited from it himself.”
“Hound Dog” stayed at No. 1 for 11 weeks in 1956, ultimately selling 10 million copies worldwide, making the young Elvis (then 21) a very wealthy man. Thornton’s original version, recorded four years earlier, had sold two million copies, though Big Mama collected only $500. Although “Ball and Chain” was the lead on Thornton’s 1968 album by the same name, the song became a smash hit when it was later appropriated by Janis Joplin. Again, Thornton got no royalties from this misuse of her music.
The Big Mama cases were blatant, but there are many other examples. Take the case of Willie Dixon, the blues bassist who operated out of Chicago. Dixon did fight back when Led Zeppelin stole his song “Whole Lotta Love.” Willie won his 1985 lawsuit against the group and later used the money to start the Blues Heaven Foundation to help Bluesmen get their royalty checks.
Misappropriation is one thing, but authenticity is quite another. Perhaps many white singers are simply performing the blues and not really putting black feelings into the music, some critics suggest. But at the very least, a white performer trying to sing the blues should give recognition to the original artist and make it plain what the content of the blues song was originally referring to, as he or she is morally (but perhaps not legally) supposed to do. However, when a musical genre like the blues suddenly becomes “hot” legalities often get overlooked, all in the interest of making as much money as possible before the market cools.
“Remember that, up until relatively recently, white people wouldn’t buy music performed by Black people, and that Black culture was considered ‘inferior’, ‘strange’, or ‘exotic’. Then white performers repackaged the Blues for a white audience, and suddenly they were respectable, and the origins of the Blues as a culture of resistance and the expression of a particular experience were often erased and denied. And remember that this happened during or not long after segregation… I would say that was cultural appropriation,” writes Yvonne Abburow in the online journal Patheos. By “relatively recently,” Abburow probably meant anytime up until the 1950s.
Like Abburow, a PhD candidate at the University of Florida, Howell Evans, argued that there is something smelly about White discourses on blues history. In his work The Literature of the Blues and Black Cultural Studies (2004), Evans wrote: “The literature of the blues is mostly a white man writing about a black man’s art, and there is more than a taste of paternalism…what this paternalism masks, this worship of the old authentic bluesman, is the guilt that white musicians have in ripping it off.”
Big Mama Thornton sings “Hound Dog Blues”