INTERDISCIPLINARY LESSON: "HOUND DOG"
How does the story of “Hound Dog” demonstrate music culture’s racial mixing as it differed from mainstream American life in the 1950s?
The first version of “Hound Dog” was released in March 1953 by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, an African-American Rhythm and Blues singer from Alabama. With her larger-than-life personality and earthy vocal delivery, Thornton was one of the Rhythm and Blues performers who helped usher in the Rock and Roll era. “Hound Dog” was written specifically for Thornton by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a white, Jewish songwriting team with a love for R&B music, a genre generally associated with black audiences. The recording was produced by Johnny Otis, the son of Greek immigrants who grew up in an African-American community and identified as black. The mixing between races did not reflect the norms of segregated 1950s American life, but behind the scenes in music culture, such mixing was possible. The recording became the biggest hit of Thornton’s career, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and staying there for seven weeks.
In July 1956, Elvis Presley, a white singer from Memphis who as a teenager had developed a fascination with black music, recorded his own version of “Hound Dog” for RCA Records. Elvis combined elements of Country and Pop with R&B, ignoring racial classification in order to showcase the variety of genres he had absorbed growing up in the South. His recording of “Hound Dog” incorporated a fast tempo, prominent drumming, and a heightened vocal energy associated with the emerging Rock and Roll sound. As a white artist, Elvis released a version of “Hound Dog” that quickly overshadowed Thornton’s original, reaching the top of the R&B, Country, and Pop charts. The record became a massive crossover success that appealed to millions of young people, both black and white—a significant achievement of racial mixing in pre-Civil Rights America.
Born in rural Ariton, Alabama, Willie Mae Thornton left home at 14 to pursue a career as a professional singer. In 1952, Thornton, already signed to Don Robey’s Peacock Records and living in Houston,Texas, Thornton connected with bandleader Johnny Otis. In a Los Angeles recording session, Otis helped bring Thornton together with songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who presented her with the music and lyrics for “Hound Dog.” Working with Leiber, Stoller, and Otis, Thornton recorded “Hound Dog” at Radio Recorders Annex on August 13, 1952. The record was released in March of the following year.
Like Thornton, Elvis Presley was raised in the South. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis grew up as an only child in a poor family. For much of Elvis’s early childhood, the Presleys lived in a series of rented rooms that were often in close proximity to African-American neighborhoods, where Elvis was exposed to black musical styles including the Blues, Gospel, and R&B. Combined with the spirituals he heard in church and the Country music his family listened to on the radio, Elvis’s musical education was diverse, and he absorbed it all.
In 1948, the Presleys moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis attended high school. Like much of the South before the Civil Rights movement, Memphis was a segregated city. The Presleys would soon be living in the Lauderdale Courts, a housing project for low income households that was restricted to white families, while Elvis attended Memphis’s all-white Humes High School. But Elvis’s musical curiosity often brought him to Beale Street, a predominantly black part of town, where he could witness the vibrant culture of Memphis’s African-American community. In 1954, when a 19-year-old Elvis made his first recordings at Memphis’s Sun Studio, his style displayed the variety of musical sounds, both white and black, that he’d heard growing up in Memphis. This mixing of musical cultures would remain prominent in his 1956 recording of “Hound Dog.”
The song “Hound Dog” does not directly comment on race relations in 1950s America. But when we consider the people who recorded the song, the places where these recordings were made, and the pre-Civil Rights era when these recordings were released, we can begin to see how “Hound Dog” reflected an important racial mixing that foreshadowed the changes that would be fought for in the Civil Rights era. Between Big Mama Thornton and Elvis’s respective releases of the song in 1953 and 1956, the country experienced some of the most significant early milestones of the Civil Rights movement that was just beginning, including Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Placed in this context, Elvis’s popular success with “Hound Dog,” a recording that drew heavily from both black and white musical influences, reflects the youth culture’s changing attitudes about race in the mid-1950s.
MARCH 1953: BIG MAMA THORNTON RELEASES “HOUND DOG” -- Issued by Peacock Records, the song, written for Thornton by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, resulted in a recording that reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and stayed there for seven weeks.
MAY 1954: SUPREME COURT RULES ON BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION -- The court strikes down state laws segregating black and white students, marking the end of the "separate but equal" doctrine laid out nearly 60 years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson.
JULY 1954: ELVIS RELEASES FIRST SINGLE ON SUN RECORDS -- Produced by Sam Phillips, who had earlier opened his recording studio to black artists including Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, Elvis’s debut features covers of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's Rhythm & Blues song "That's All Right" and the Bill Monroe Bluegrass song "Blue Moon of Kentucky."
DECEMBER 1955: ROSA PARKS REFUSES TO GIVE UP HER SEAT ON A PUBLIC BUS -- In refusing to give her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks’s symbolic act of defiance sparks the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
JULY 1956: ELVIS PRESLEY RELEASES “HOUND DOG” -- Elvis’s recording of the song, which had been covered by several artists since Thornton’s 1953 original, becomes the most successful version, reaching No. 1 on the R&B, Country, and Pop charts.
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
1. Play a video of Big Mama Thornton performing “Hound Dog.” Ask students for any words or phrases they would use to describe Thornton’s sound. Next, play an audio clip of “(How Much is That) Doggie in the Window?,” a Pop song recorded by Patti Page in 1953, the same year Thornton released “Hound Dog.” Ask students to speculate: how might the general audience for Pop music have responded to Thornton’s sound? [Students might find the music “raw” or “gritty,” something that would unsettle the general Pop audience.]
2. Display images of Billboard’s R&B and Pop charts from May 1953. Explain that in the 1950s, the R&B chart was associated primarily with black audiences, and, in turn, the Pop chart was associated with mostly white audiences. Ask students:
[Note: Of the Top 10 Pop artists listed, only Nat "King" Cole is an African American. The other nine artists on the Pop chart are white.]
3. Thornton’s recording was released at a time when many public institutions in the country were segregated. Segregation had legally existed since Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of segregation under the "separate but equal" doctrine. Ask students:
4. Play the video clip of Elvis Presley performing “Hound Dog” in 1956. Ask students: what are some differences you notice between Elvis and Thornton as performers? [Students may notice their differences in gender, race, physical movements, etc.]
5. Display images from the 1956 Billboard R&B, Country, and Pop charts, and have students locate “Hound Dog” on each chart. Ask students:
While Thornton’s recording had been released three years earlier, Elvis’s version became the most commercially successful.
6. Explain that the class will now consider one specific example of how desegregation impacted life in 1950s America. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools are unconstitutional. Such institutions were thus required to desegregate, a process that was often tense in communities accustomed to the “separate but equal” lifestyle born of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. In some cases, National Guardsmen were called in to help escort African-American students into school buildings.
Ask students if they understand what “separate but equal” meant to life in the American South, and why Brown v. Board of Education disrupted that?
7. Break students up into small groups and hand out to each group the School Desegregation Worksheet. The worksheet contains two photographs from 1956 of a high school in Tennessee undergoing desegregation. Groups should investigate both photos and discuss the following questions:
8. Continuing on the worksheet, groups should select two individuals from each photo for whom the group will creating “thought bubbles.” Use the first-person perspective, with each thought bubble describing an individual’s internal feelings or reactions to the events that are transpiring on the school’s campus. When finished, invite volunteers from each group to present their thought bubbles to the class.
9. Remind students that the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was decided in 1954, between Thornton’s release of “Hound Dog” in 1953 and Elvis’s recording of the same song in 1956. Have students write a journal entry answering the following prompt:
In the fall of 1956 Elvis’s recording of “Hound Dog” topped the American Pop charts. At the same time, formerly all-white schools in some parts of the country were struggling with the process of integration. Why might a person accept racial mixing in popular culture, such as in music, but not accept racial mixing in cultural institutions, such as public schools? What does this say about the particularities and possibilities of racial mixing in music culture? How might music culture thus help lead the way towards integration in other areas of American life?
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)
Reading 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)
Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)
Core Music Standard: Responding
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.