Song “Hound Dog”

Cover Song “Hound Dog” Analytical Paper

“Hound Dog” is a widely known rock-and-roll song. The song was originally performed by a female blues vocalist Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and covered by Elvis Presley several years after the original recording was released. Evidently, the original composition’s content, context, and technical specificities have been artistically reconsidered. In Presley’s version of “Hound Dog”, greater emphasis is being placed on instrumentation and performance while Thornton focuses not just on performance but the expressive force of the composition performed. In the following paper, I intend to prove that Big Mama Thornton’s and Elvis Presley’s recordings of the song “Hound Dog” represent two distinct performance choices that transform both the performers’ respective interpretation of the composition and audience’s understanding and experience of it.

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Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” is assumed to be the original version of this classical rock-and-roll composition. Researchers have estimated that the song was recorded in the early 1950s, about 1952. As far as the history of music is concerned, the 1950s came to be known as a period when recording technologies and musical industry itself were entering a new stage of development. Elvis Presley covered the song “Hound Dog” around 1956. Thus, the original composition’s content, context, and technical specificities have been artistically reconsidered. With regard to this, it has to be admitted that artists like Big Mama Thornton are typically not given enough credit. Apart from that, there is no denying the fact that, in Elvis Presley’s version of the song, the lyrics were considerably changed. Originally, the themes and motives of the composition were prompted by the life of the African-American community. Elvis Presley, in his turn, might have decided to change the focus of the song. Evidently, in Presley’s version of “Hound Dog”, greater emphasis is placed on instrumentation and performance. Therefore, Big Mama Thornton’s and Elvis Presley’s recordings of the song “Hound Dog” represent two distinct performance choices that transform both the performers’ respective interpretation of the composition and audience’s understanding and experience of it.

To begin the analysis of the two different recordings of the song “Hound Dog”, it is essential to contemplate the essence of rock-and-roll music. It has been noted by theorists, researchers, performers, and music aficionados that aspiration for freedom is at the heart of rock-and-roll. The skeptics, on the other hand, maintain that rock-and-roll approves of frivolity and non-conformity. Being a proponent of rock-and-roll music requires a considerable amount of intelligence and responsibility. Originally, the music that had laid the foundation for rock-and-roll was composed mainly by representatives of the most vulnerable groups. Assuming that the foregoing statement is correct, rock-and-roll may have stood opposed to virtually everything that the social order was based on. More importantly, however, rock-and-roll questioned what the majorities across the world believed in, virtually everything that was taken for granted. Many people, therefore, were unwilling to accept rock-and-roll, feared it, and rejected it. Apart from that, understanding the essence of rock-and-roll gives insight into why it took so much time for that particular genre to become popular and why it remained popular for such a short period of time.

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was born December 11th, 1926, in Montgomery, Alaska (Coltraine 370). The future blues vocalist was born to a family of a preacher. Thornton’s mother was a lead singer in the church choir (Coltraine 370). Willie Mae began to pursue a career in show business in the early 1940s, at the age of 14. “She toured with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue during the 1940s, where she honed her skills not only as a blistering vocalist but as a harp blower and drummer” (Coltraine 370). In 1951, when Big Mama Thornton signed the contract with Duke/Peacock Records, she had been working as a staple on the circuit in Houston, Texas (Coltraine 370). “Partnership Blues” became the first song Thornton recorded at Peacock Records (Coltraine 370). To make that recording, “Big Mama” Thornton collaborated with the famous trumpeter Joe Scott and his band (Coltraine 370). Thus, for Willie Mae, the most active period of her career began.

As Mark Coltraine notes, “it was her third Peacock session with Johnny Otis’s band that struck gold” (370). Mark Coltraine’s statement cited above would be a reference to the song “Hound Dog”. The song was “penned by songwriting royalty Leiber and Stoller” (Coltraine 370). The song gained Big Mama Thornton the popularity she deserved. For seven weeks in 1953, “Hond Dog” held the number-one position on Billboard rhythm and blues chart (Coltraine 370). Elvis Presley obscured Big Mama Thornton’s legacy in 1956 when his own cover of the song appeared. Willie Mae Thornton found herself in a similar situation about 1968 when Janis Joplin and the band The Big Brother and the Holding Company decided to cover Thornton’s song “Ball and Chain” and performed it at the Monterey Pop Festival. Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton maintained steady performance schedule until the early 1980s. At that time, the singer’s health began to decline. Willie Mae Thornton passed away in 1984, the year she was officially inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame (Coltraine 370).

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“Rock-and-roll music existed before Elvis Presley came along, but with his arrival on the performing scene, Americans could ignore it no longer” (“Elvis Presley” 60). The quote cited above appeared in the 1978 issue of the Music Educators Journal and it appears to be the most precise description of Elvis Presley’s contribution to music. Presley musical heritage is commonly characterized as “an amalgam of white country-and-western music, black rhythm and blues, and gospel sounds of both races” (“Elvis Presley” 60). Nowadays, many critics, researchers, and connoisseurs of music take Presley life’s work as a portent, considering the musician himself a prophet who foresaw the changes popular culture has gone through. One of Elvis Presley’s greatest cultural achievements is the fact that he managed to make the merging of white and black musicality an acceptable thing. The researchers list Elvis Presley among the rock-and-roll musicians who have managed to pursue a career in cinematography successfully. Clearly, Presley was one of the first artists “to have a series of ‘million seller’ recordings” (“Elvis Presley” 61). Many artists before and after Presley attempted to imitate African-American musical aesthetics and present it to the majority. Evidently, Presley was one of the very few artists of that kind who succeeded in this. Overall, Elvis Presley had a talent, an extraordinary skill to understand the likes and needs of recipients (Fairchild 106). Presley’s music was, therefore, easy to understand and relatable to the audience.

At this point, it is essential to take a small detour to ponder on the differences between the African-American and white traditions that shaped rhythms of blues and rock-and-roll music respectively. With regard to this, the song “Hound Dog” seems to be a fitting example. First and foremost, Big Mama Thornton’s performance of the song “Hound Dog” is a perfect combination of high-quality performance and expressiveness. Obviously, someone who delves into analyzing a piece of music composed and recorded approximately in the early 1950s has to work with some crude material for the reasons that are fairly self-explanatory: musicians and recording studios at that time used the equipment the functions of which were quite limited.

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Many critics, theorists, researchers, and musicians noted that some occasional flaws became more noticeable each time the recording was listened to (Brackett 11). Apparently, there is no point in risking ‘judging the book by its cover’ when it comes to analyzing a vintage recording. What is meant here is that no value judgment can be made when it comes to the analysis of technical aspects of a recording made in the first half of the twentieth century. On the other hand, the objective analysis of a piece of music recorded in the early 1950s is nigh on impossible. Yet, Presley’s and Thornton’s versions of the song “Hound Dog” have much in common. As it was previously stated, “Thornton recorded ‘Hound Dog’ for Houston’s Peacock label while on tour in California in 1952 with Johnny Otis’ band” (Fairchild 107). Charles Fairchild made an assertion that the musicians “more than likely rehearsed until they got it right, recording the final version in a single live performance, the sonic contours of which were honed and specified by the same kind of musical practices as Elvis and his band used” (107). Building on the information noted above, it is possible to assume that Big Mama Thornton’s and Elvis Presley’s recordings of the song “Hound Dog” have very much in common in their respective technical and stylistic peculiarities. However, in each case, different rhythmic and melodic patterns are discernible. All in all, it is lyrics that represent the key difference between the two recordings. First of all, Thornton’s version of the song conclusively proves that, initially, the song was composed for a female artist. Apart from that, ‘Big Mama’s’ version of the song is more symbolic, metaphoric, and allegoric if compared to that of Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley’s cover addresses the issue of social inequality. Thornton’s recording of the song is based on a specific cultural background (customs, traditions, symbols, and patterns of interaction specific to the African-American community) as opposed to Presley’s cover, which is not affiliated with any particular cultural group.

The differences between Thornton’s and Presley’s recordings of the song “Hound Dog” were prompted mostly by the socio-cultural era in which the compositions were created. Many researchers are inclined to think that the majorities have developed an interest in the African-American culture approximately in the 1920s and 1930s. At around that time, many genres associated with blues and jazz music emerged, such as ragtime, for example. With jazz music being scrutinized, artists had more room for experiment. Limited technical base compelled the representatives of the music recording industry to become creative. Willie Mae Thornton’s extraordinary performance technique coupled with the simplicity of the compositions she performed has made her a popular artist. The uniqueness of her contributions was obscured by Elvis Presley’s will to experiment. Presley managed to make African-American musical tradition easier for the majority to comprehend. This is a point where the ethical aspect of merging cultures starts to assert itself. Cynical as it sounds, it happened that many African-American artists, such as Willie Mae Thornton, were robbed of their achievements. On the other hand, the white artists kindled the interest in exploring African-American art through covering the songs originally performed by the African-American artists.

In conclusion, “Hound Dog” is a song that is slightly haunting in terms of imagery and brilliant in its expressive force. The song was originally performed by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, a female blues vocalist. The piece was covered by Elvis Presley, who brought some technical sophistication to the song. Both songs have very much in common in terms of the general tone, the mood, and the use of the expressive means. The artists’ respective recordings of the song differ in terms of lyrics and instrumentation. Consequently, it was the performance manner and using the same expressive means differently that affected the audience’s reception and understanding of the song.


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