Briahna Joy Gray has written an excellent article on cultural exploitation and uses the song Hound Dog as an example. She argues “It’s more helpful to think about exploitation and disrespect than to define cultural “ownership”…”
That brings us back to Elvis, Big Mama Thornton, and “Hound Dog.” The issue there isn’t that Elvis shouldn’t sing “Hound Dog.” It’s that when Elvis sang Hound Dog, it made him rich and he became “The King,” while when Thornton sang what is—let’s be honest—an objectively better version of the song, she didn’t become a world-famous megastar. Elvis’s early records, the ones that made his name, are filled with covers of songs by black artists (“That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train,” “Milkcow Blues,” etc.), but the life stories of early 20th century black musicians are stories of poverty and exploitation by a predatory music industry that lifted their sounds and left them with nothing. The trouble isn’t that Elvis sang the songs but that he did so in a viciously racist economic landscape that didn’t reward black cultural innovation with black economic success. Using cultural “ownership” doesn’t help us here—after all, “Hound Dog” was written by white songwriters, albeit specifically for Thornton, who added her own improvisations. But it’s still obvious we’re dealing with a racially unequal music industry.