My Father, Cultural Appropriator

June 5, 2021   •   By Sarah Curtis

IF YOU GOOGLE my father’s name, Sonny Curtis, there’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon the word pioneer. A search of “Sonny Curtis” + “pioneer” yields 34,000 results — though many of these examples use the word to refer to my father’s teenage friend and bandmate, Buddy Holly.

Growing up, I watched enough Little House on the Prairie episodes after school to understand what that word meant. My father was not Michael Landon driving a covered wagon westward into an uncertain horizon, as his own grandfather had done in the 1920s, but I knew he had been first at something, something big and important. Over the years, I figured out what any half-educated rock ’n’ roll fan has long known. My father and Buddy were pioneers in the same way the Ingalls family were pioneers: whites trailing a path already forged, in this case by Black rhythm-and-blues musicians like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton, and Lead Belly. My father and Buddy crested the second wave, the white performers imitating those Black musicians, rendering the genre acceptable for a white audience.

When I began writing about my father’s life and career a few years ago, I did not want to delve too deeply into the topic of cultural appropriation. The truth is, I didn’t harbor judgment for my teenage father’s embrace of Black rhythm and blues. He was a good Baptist son with riot in his soul, and rock ’n’ roll filled a void that Bob Wills did not; just as Eazy-E filled a void for me as a teenager that Madonna did not, and just as Travis Scott fills a void for my white teenage daughter that Taylor Swift does not. Let’s admit it: white culture can be, well, bloodless.

But the harder truth is: I didn’t want to dwell on cultural appropriation because I didn’t want to paint my father as a racist. Like all of us, he harbors conscious and unconscious racism and bigotry, but his childhood was more racially integrated than many people’s, including my own. Born to poor, Texan cotton farmers at the tail end of the Dust Bowl, he grew up alongside the children of Black sharecroppers and Mexican day laborers, all of them running barefoot together through the fields. A Mexican café near his house blared norteño music on weekends, and he loved to stand on his porch at night and listen to the accordions rip through the silence of the open prairie. These experiences with nonwhite culture molded him from an early age, just as they molded other appropriators like Carl Perkins, who learned guitar from a Black field hand on his parents’ cotton farm.

But Lubbock, the town where Buddy Holly and my father grew up, was deeply segregated, beholden to a 1923 ordinance forbidding Blacks from owning property outside the Southeast side (the law remained on the books for 83 years, until the city council abolished it in 2006). When the two were teenagers in the 1950s, rhythm and blues was verboten. White DJs wouldn’t play Black artists on the air, but somehow Buddy and my father, who started picking together in a bluegrass band when they were 15, discovered a radio show called Stan’s Record Rack, a Shreveport broadcast that played popular Black music of the day. In a 1996 interview with biographer Spencer Leigh, my father recalled:

Then along came Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ray Charles — he was a little more sophisticated, we couldn’t figure out some of his chords — and, of course, Chuck Berry. At the outset, we couldn’t listen to some of that music ’cause it was considered “race music.” We’d have to go out in the car late at night and listen to this show on KWHD out of Shreveport, Louisiana, which played the greatest music in the world. I used to spend the night with Holly. We’d go out at midnight and sit in his car, and fall asleep listening to the music.

My father and Buddy weren’t the only white boys listening to rhythm and blues. On January 6, 1955, Elvis Presley played Lubbock for the first time at the Fair Park Coliseum. My 17-year-old father was on the bill that night, playing guitar for a country duo. The concert organizers stacked hay bales against the stage to separate Elvis from the crowd, and my father remembers “the most beautiful girls in Lubbock” climbing over them, grasping at the singer’s pant legs. “I remember being made aware of something happening, that there was more to music than making music,” he told me. “I don’t know if the term ‘groupie’ even existed back then, but before that night, I’d thought of a fan as someone who liked someone else’s music. I mean, I was a Hank Snow fan. But this was different, the effect Elvis had on people. Especially girls.”

Elvis had co-opted more than the rhythm-and-blues sound, blatantly ripping off Black performers like Otis Blackwell and Big Mama Thornton. He’d also borrowed the language — billing himself as the Hillbilly “Cat,” ’50s slang for a Black man — and the clothes. My father vividly remembers his outfit that night: white suede bucks, red flannel pants, and an orange jacket — decidedly not Western wear.

When Buddy saw Elvis, he “flipped out,” according to my father, and instantly converted from country to rock ’n’ roll. My father was more impressed by Elvis’s guitar player Scotty Moore, whose playing echoed that of his childhood hero, Chet Atkins. He was obsessed with imitating Atkins’s style, which merged bass and guitar in a way that created an orchestra to the ear. A few months before that night, he’d hitchhiked to Lubbock to track down a local TV cameraman rumored to know the trick. The man opened the door in a bathrobe, bleary-eyed, then invited my father inside, where he showed him how to play the rhythm with his thumb and the melody with his fingers. Afterward, my father practiced constantly until he nailed it. And here was Scotty Moore, doing the same trick.

Elvis planted a seed in Buddy’s head that night. Since Elvis’s three-piece band was made up of lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and bass, his band would be too. Buddy would imitate Elvis, singing lead and playing rhythm; his high school friend Don Guess would play the slap bass in a percussive style like Bill Black. My father would play lead guitar like Scotty.

They dug in the next day after school, teaching themselves songs from Elvis’s early catalog, like “Baby, Let’s Play House.” You couldn’t get into see Elvis? No problem. You could see my father, Buddy, and Don. Gigs began lining up from Dallas to Amarillo. Later, they would name themselves the Two Tones, based on matching Elvis-inspired suits they bought from a haberdasher in Oklahoma City: white pants, blue shirts, and orange jackets.

The following summer, 1956, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal ran an overwrought series on the dangers of rock ’n’ roll, which the author Phyllis Battelle described as “a poor white trash version of a music form called ‘rhythm and blues.’” Throughout the series, Battelle made no effort to hide her racism for rock ’n’ roll’s “primitive jungle beat,” as she called it. She interviewed a Boston disc jockey, who said, “I suppose the natives must have been worked into a frenzy by tom toms. It works the same on kids.” The editors ran a photo of my father and Buddy’s band playing a seedy club where kids were dancing the “dirty bop,” a sort of choreographed dry hump. They blacked out the bandmates’ eyes, so sinful was the scene.

In his 1968 essay collection Soul on Ice, political activist and onetime Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was one of the first to write about the cultural appropriation of rock ’n’ roll.

So Elvis Presley came, strumming a weird guitar and wagging his tail across the continent, ripping off fame and fortune as he scrunched his way, and, like a latter-day Johnny Appleseed, sowing seeds of a new rhythm and style in the white souls of the white youth of America, whose inner hunger and need was no longer satisfied with the antiseptic white shoes and whiter songs of Pat Boone.

Cleaver attributed this “inner hunger” to the Civil Rights unrest of the 1950s. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the early, violent attempts at school desegregation, the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. — these events opened a “fissure” in American culture through which rock ’n’ roll entered. In some ways, this new, co-opted genre was birthed of good intentions, he wrote: mostly young people, daring “to do in the light of day what America had long been doing in the sneak-thief anonymity of night — consort[ing] on a human level with the blacks.”

That was certainly the case for my father. One Friday afternoon when he was 18, a guitarist for the famous blues pianist Charles Brown came into the music shop where he worked after school to buy strings. My father introduced himself as a fan of Brown’s, and the guitarist invited him to see their brass orchestra perform that night at Lubbock’s Cotton Club. Like all the joints, the club was segregated, hosting different nights for white and Black performers. My father arrived alone that night, the only white person in the house. Perhaps to put him at ease, the guitarist pulled up a chair beside him onstage, where my father sat for the entire show, electrified. When he returned to school, he couldn’t wait to tell a friend — a fellow “muso” — about the concert. A boy overheard their conversation in the hall. “What do y’all see in that n----- music?” he sneered.

When my father told me this story a few years ago, we were eating breakfast at a Lubbock diner, our eggs growing cold between us. “Weren’t you embarrassed?” I asked. “That you were sitting onstage, not playing an instrument? The only white person there?” 

No, no, no, he insisted with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Maybe I was too stupid to be embarrassed. But he made me feel like a guest. He just welcomed me with such … warmth.” Warmth, I scribbled in my notebook, pretending not to see the tears welling up in his eyes. He is 84 now, and becomes emotional when he remembers mentors who were kind to him in his youth.

I admit it’s a sweet story (except for the racist kid in the hallway), but the problem with the narrative is it doesn’t work both ways. The word segregated itself is problematic; for no young, Black man would have been invited onstage at one of the Cotton Club’s all-white performances. That’s also, I think, why the memory affects my father so. Because he knows it wasn’t the guitarist’s job to invite a white, teenage music store employee to the show, much less treat him as a VIP. The man could have paid for his strings and breezed out the door. But in an act of grace, he reached across the barrier.

I use this anecdote to illustrate a point: the issue with early white rock ’n’ rollers was not exactly the same as our modern-day brand of cultural appropriation, which hinges on mockery. They weren’t akin to Jimmy Kimmel riffing in blackface to get a laugh, or Adam Rapoport, the former editor of Bon Appétit, mugging in brownface for Halloween. They weren’t college kids wearing sombreros for half-off Margarita Monday, or drunk baseball fans performing the tomahawk chop. Buddy Holly died long before I was born, but I know he, and certainly my father, had a deep respect for Black music: the greatest music in the world. Buddy later hired a rhythm guitarist who thought it was funny to imitate Chuck Berry’s signature duck walk onstage. His impersonation so irritated the band — perhaps because it did border on mockery — they fired him.

The problem wasn’t mockery. The problem, as Cleaver observed, was that “into rhythm and blues, the Negro projected — as it were, drained off, as pus from a sore — a powerful sensuality, his pain and lust, his love and his hate, his ambition and his despair. The Negro projected into his music his very Body.” As Wesley Morris phrased it in the New York Times’s 1619 series, “We’re also talking about what the borrowers and collaborators don’t want to or can’t lift — centuries of weight, of atrocity we’ve never sufficiently worked through, the blackness you know is beyond theft because it’s too real, too rich, too heavy to steal.”

But steal it they did. When white acts came along like Elvis, the Beatles (whom Cleaver called “soul by proxy”), and yes, my father and Buddy Holly — they offered this music, this sacred Black body, up for white consumption and profit. They may have thought they were doing it out of respect; or more likely, they were just kids who didn’t think much about it at all. But if there’s one thing the events of the past year should have taught white people, we cannot merely acknowledge white privilege; we must engage with its costs.

The prevailing argument in favor of rock ’n’ roll appropriators holds that white artists helped expose Black rhythm-and-blues musicians to a wider audience, thus earning them more money and fame. I was surprised recently to hear cultural Band-Aid-ripper Malcolm Gladwell make this argument on his podcast Revisionist History. Titled “In a Metal Mood,” the episode profiled Taco Bell, Elvis Presley, and Pat Boone — examples of what Gladwell called “the right kind of cultural appropriation.” “When it works, cultural appropriation serves as the basis for something new. But it also widens the audience for the real thing. It’s the way the original, authentic idea moves into the mainstream.” But what does Gladwell mean by mainstream, if not white?

Boone himself addressed the issue in a 2020 interview with Variety.

I came into some criticism for singing rhythm and blues songs and for supposedly taking something or obstructing something. But my versions of their songs became big hits and opened the doors for them to become the stars they so richly deserved to become. I like to say I was the midwife at the birth of rock and roll.

Boone is not wrong, but I do think he’s misguided. Imagine if he reframed his white savior narrative this way: “I was one of the early rock ’n’ roll performers who copied Black music and made it palatable for white racists who would never dream of tuning into a Black rhythm-and-blues station.” Doesn’t give Boone quite the same pat on the back, does it? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.)

Which brings me to the subject of the most famous cultural appropriator in rock ’n’ roll, Elvis. It’s worth noting that in Peter Guralnick’s epic two-part biography of the star — what many have called his definitive biography, and I don’t wholly disagree — Guralnick is downright hostile about the subject of cultural appropriation. As he writes in the prologue of Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley:

[T]he music with which he made his mark has become a battleground for competing ethnocentric claims: Elvis Presley, whose democratic vision could not have been broader or more encompassing, is used as the centerpiece for accusations of cultural theft. This is a misunderstanding not just of Elvis Presley but of popular culture, which even in its purest forms cannot help but represent the polyglot borrowings that radio and the phonograph record first introduced almost a century ago. […] That music exists, like all art, without explanation (if it could be formulized, why wouldn’t everyone do it?), but it came about no more by accident than Duke Ellington’s carefully worked-out compositions or Robert Johnson’s blues.

The statement “That music exists, like all art, without explanation” is curious coming from a biographer who amassed over 1,300 pages explaining how one artist came to create his art. But I recognize Guralnick’s defensiveness in myself. Like my father, Elvis grew up poor, surrounded by a Black culture he admired. At one point in his childhood, his family was one of the only white families living in the Shake Rag, a working-class Black neighborhood in Tupelo, Mississippi. Black gospel and blues was coiled in Elvis’s DNA. How do you steal something you’ve been raised on?

And yet, many of Elvis’s early hits were written by Black artists, most notably Otis Blackwell, the man behind “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” and “Return to Sender,” among others. In Guralnick’s extensive oeuvre about the star, Blackwell’s name appears only seven times in the text, mostly in passing — though the author opines about how Elvis took “Don’t Be Cruel” and reworked it to suit him, perhaps to justify why the star insisted on sharing co-writing credits with Blackwell. It’s as if Guralnick worries that granting airtime to Blackwell subtracts from Elvis’s accomplishments. But few people would deny Elvis’s raw, innate talent; just as few would deny Buddy Holly’s, or, I believe, my father’s. Cultural appropriation is not a zero-sum game. Yet to omit or allay Black contributions is to commit what scholar Saidiya Hartman calls “the violence of the archive.”

Still there have been times when, reading debates over cultural appropriation in the news, I’ve felt splintered. Of course no person or group from a culture of oppressors should ever mock or denigrate a culture of oppressed. But where does cultural appreciation end and cultural appropriation begin? Are we not allowed to absorb and refract the cultures we’re surrounded by, like young Elvis strolling the alleyways of Shake Rag, rapt in the thrum of voices spilling from the churches? Or like my young father on his childhood porch, swaying to the vibrations of accordions? We’re an interconnected species, and isn’t connection needed now more than ever in this divisive era? In the end, it’s a subject that demands nuance, that rarest of commodities in internet debates.

I’m grateful for the cultural appreciation I was exposed to as a child. Though I was embarrassed at the time, I’m grateful for the concert my father played for my rural, Tennessee elementary school, which included a face-melting version of Little Richard’s “Keep A-Knockin’” (my predominantly white, Baptist classmates never looked at me the same). I’m grateful for the long car rides I took with my parents as a child, bouncing in the backseat to Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” songs that made me feel my heart might explode like a firecracker. When I became a mother, I showed my daughters videos of Little Richard on YouTube, and they, too, fell in love with his unearthly delivery. They are older now, but sometimes we still cheer ourselves up with a raucous “Wooooo-yeah!”

Unlike Buddy, my father’s heart was always more country than rock ’n’ roll. That’s partly why he left Buddy’s band, to tour with country crooner Slim Whitman. Yet he did write a few rock ’n’ roll songs of his own, most famously “I Fought the Law,” but also a lesser-known one recorded by Buddy and the Crickets called “Rock Around With Ollie Vee.” He wrote it in 1956 when he was 18, around the time he and Buddy scored their first — but ultimately unsuccessful — record deal with Decca in Nashville. You can sometimes still hear the song on oldies stations.

Ollie Vee was an actual woman he knew, the wife of a Black field hand named Willie Robinson who worked on his father’s cotton farm. “[Willie and I] got to be pretty good friends because we both drove tractors,” my father told an interviewer from the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012. “We’d cross paths going back and forth on those fields all day.” I imagine my young father, nodding hello to Willie as they pass at the turn row. From a distance, he spots Ollie Vee hauling water from the windmill, and pats out the tempo on his knee.

Bada bum, bada bum, bada bada bum
Ollie Vee, Ollie Vee, Ollie Ollie Vee
Ollie Vee comes from Memphis, Memphis Tennessee

He doesn’t think she ever knew he used her name for the song.


Sarah Curtis’s writing has appeared in Creative NonfictionSalon, the American Literary Review, the Colorado ReviewCrazyhorse, and the anthology, River Teeth: Twenty Years of Creative Nonfiction.