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“Hound Dog” (1956)

Elvis Presley


“Hound Dog” is a 12-bar blues song written in 1952 by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two Jewish songwriters from Los Angeles. The song was written specifically for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, an African-American blues singer from rural Alabama, who recorded “Hound Dog” in 1953. “Hound Dog” would be Thornton’s only hit record. The most recognized version of the song, however, came in 1956, when Elvis Presley released a cover that would become one of the best-selling singles of all time. For many, Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” stands as the definitive recording. In fact, much of Elvis’ audience had no real knowledge of Thornton’s original recording. “Hound Dog” both exposes and questions the cultural complexities of authenticity and ownership in 1950s rock and roll.

  • Who “owns” a song? Is it the songwriters? The performer for which the song was written? The performer who can claim the biggest hit? Which performance/recording is the most authentic? What does “authenticity” mean? How can we define authenticity in rock and roll? (You can discuss these questions as they relate to “Hound Dog,” but you can ask students to think more generally as well.)

  • Allow students to compare Big Mama Thornton’s recording to Elvis Presley’s. What changes do they hear (lyrically and musically)? What remains the same? How does each performer make the song his/her own? Be sure to watch a performance from each as well. (Both can be found on our website.) How would you describe each artist’s performance?

  • What other stories like this exist in the history of rock and roll? How does this inform our understanding of certain songs and artists?


ACTIVITY: Alice Walker’s “1955”

This activity is designed to help students understand the cultural complexities of musical “ownership” and performance.
Have students read Alice Walker’s short story “1955” from You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down: Stories (1982). (Be sure to read for appropriateness before sharing with your students.)

  1. Ask your students to connect the fictional story of Gracie Mae Still and Traynor to the history of Willie Mae Thornton and Elvis, and more specifically, the history that surrounds “Hound Dog.” Make sure students can make distinctions between fact and fiction. Ask students to consider how Walker’s fictional representation allows the reader to analyze the complexities of this history. (For more on Thornton’s influence on Elvis – and other performers – have students read New York University professor, Maureen Mahon’s featured blog post.) Have students connect more broadly to 1955. What was happening in American culture in 1955? Why is this year significant?

  1. Have students reflect on the relationship between Gracie Mae and Traynor. What role does each play? How does each see the other? Is the relationship equal? How does this relationship evolve from 1955 to 1977?

  1. At their first meeting, “the deacon” (presumably meant to represent Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker) tells Gracie Mae that he and Traynor “would like to buy up all of those records you made of that song.” Why does he do this? What does Traynor stand to gain from buying all of Gracie Mae’s records? What does Gracie Mae gain? What does she lose? What does this reveal about the business of rock and roll in the 1950s?

  1. Throughout the story Gracie Mae comments on her appearance, and more specifically, her weight. How does Gracie Mae’s self-image change throughout the story? How does this compare to Traynor? Ask students to pay particular attention to their joint-appearance on the Johnny Carson Show in 1968. How does Gracie Mae’s physicality influence their performance? How does the audience respond? What does this suggest about expectations for female performers?

  1. Alice Walker dedicates You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down: Stories to a number of female artists: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, and Perry Bradford. How does this inform our understanding of the story told in “1955”?

  1. As a culminating activity, have students write an account of Gracie Mae and Traynor’s first meeting at Gracie Mae’s house – but from Traynor’s point of view. In Walker’s story, Traynor is silent in that scene. The deacon and Gracie Mae do all the talking. What might Traynor be thinking? What is he experiencing? Why is he relatively silent? Students can present their writing to the class, or select work can be discussed. How do these accounts compare to Walker’s original? How does this exercise compare to the realities of rock and roll history where Elvis’ side of the story is often told and Big Mama Thornton’s voice is largely silent?

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