Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters
by Lynnée Denise
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Pub Date 12 Sep 2023 | Archive Date 31 Dec 2023
A queer, Black “biography in essays” about the performer who gave us “Hound Dog,” “Ball and Chain,” and other songs that changed the course of American music.
Born in Alabama in 1926, raised in the church, appropriated by white performers, buried in an indigent’s grave—Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton's life events epitomize the blues—but Lynnée Denise pushes past the stereotypes to read Thornton’s life through a Black, queer, feminist lens and reveal an artist who was an innovator across her four-decade-long career.
Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters “samples” elements of Thornton’s art—and, occasionally, the author’s own story—to create “a biography in essays” that explores the life of its subject as a DJ might dig through a crate of records. Denise connects Thornton’s vaudevillesque performances in Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue to the vocal improvisations that made “Hound Dog” a hit for Peacock Records (and later for Elvis Presley), injecting music criticism into what’s often framed as a cautionary tale of record-industry racism. She interprets Thornton’s performing in men’s suits as both a sly, Little Richard–like queering of the Chitlin Circuit and a simple preference for pants over dresses that didn’t have a pocket for her harmonica. Most radical of all, she refers to her subject by her given name rather than "Big Mama," a nickname bestowed upon her by a white man. It's a deliberate and crucial act of reclamation, because in the name of Willie Mae Thornton is the sound of Black musical resilience.
A Note From the Publisher
Lynnée Denise was the 2022 Sterling Brown Distinguished Visiting Professor at Williams College. In addition, she is the recipient of numerous global residencies and lecturer positions– including at Stanford University, UCLA, and Spelman College– Denise’s artistic interdisciplinary teachings harness music as a medium for critical dialogue and public scholarship on how to transform the way that Black music is understood in its social context and beyond entertainment.
Her work has been featured in various cultural and academic institutions worldwide, including the Tate Modern in London, Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, Savvy Contemporary Gallery in Berlin, Brown University, Princeton University, and the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. Her literary essays have been published in venues such as Harper’s Bazaar, the Los Angeles Times, Oprah Daily, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Denise is at the helm of many groundbreaking artistic and academic productions, including After the Last Dance, the first and only Michael Jackson conference with The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The School of Prince with the Los Angeles Public Library, and Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace: From Detroit to Watts: the first conference dedicated solely to the musical life of The Queen of Soul with the UCLA African American Studies Department.
"Bringing her distinctive diasporic and archival listening practice to bear on the art, life, and impact of the phenomenal Southern genius, Willie Mae Thornton, Lynnée Denise provides here a rigorous refiguring of Thornton's life and art. This is a dynamic situating of Thornton's work in a powerful sonic kaleidoscope that crosses regions, nations, and oceans, and a 'here here!' attestation to Thornton's resonance in and beyond her lifetime and into the promise-fulfilling futures Thornton's voice and labor still beckon us to imagine."—Zandria F. Robinson, Georgetown University
"This book is an achievement in many ways: in sharpness of language, in brilliance of storytelling. But it is also an achievement in that it affords Willie Mae Thornton the presence she deserves, a presence that outlives and outlasts a history that has never done her justice."—Hanif Abdurraqib, author of Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest, and most recently, A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance
"Lynnée Denise protects and spotlights the ghost of Willie Mae Thornton through a listening practice that is praxis, process, and meditation in Black sound. Thornton’s unmarked grave, both in life and in American music history, haunts every word as Denise connects dots, dips, debuts, diatribes, and musical declarations in this groundbreaking work of music scholarship. What becomes startlingly clear is that we need more biographical mixtapes by Black queer DJs. Turn this way up."—Saul Williams, American rapper, singer, songwriter, musician, poet, writer, and actor.
"Lynnée Denise talks of hearing a biography in Big Mama Thornton’s voice, and that is fitting because Denise, in her intellectual practice, has been a living embodiment of hearing the Black archive in sound. Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters is a testament both to Thornton’s long-overlooked genius and to Denise’s singular ability to make that genius legible for those who would think otherwise and those who know no better."—Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University. Author of Black Ephemera: The Crisis and Challenge of the Musical Archive