Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters (Music Matters) (Hardcover)
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.
About the Author
Lynnée Denise is an artist, writer, and DJ. She was the Sterling Brown ’22 Distinguished Visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College, and she is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Visual Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Denise offers a desperately-needed corrective in this volume about the art, life, and legacy of Thornton, whose song “Hound Dog” (later recorded by Elvis) changed the course of American music. A standout installment in the University of Texas Press’s always great Music Matters series.
— The Millions
The enigmatically intelligent and scholarly productive thinker, Lynnée Denise, who has made strides in Black realms of music for well over a decade is now presenting a new book. Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters gives an honest and incredibly bright examination of the relevance of Big Mama Thornton.
— The New York Amsterdam News
Denise uses shrewd music criticism and a Black, queer, feminist lens, to reintroduce Thornton as a performer who transcended gender norms . . . Denise’s thoughtful reimagination of Thornton’s career pays tribute to a woman that embodied Black creation and resilience.
— Alternative Press
Impressive research and thoughtful commentary illuminate the life and career of Willie Mae 'Big Mama' Thornton (1926–84) in this eloquent volume...What emerges is a portrait of an extraordinary woman who influenced later blues, rock, and pop music performers such as Janis Joplin...An engaging and well-written must-read with generous resources for further study.
— Library Journal, starred review
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was a Black, queer blues woman often recognized for her song, “Hound Dog,” but she was so much more. In the latest volume of the Music Matters series, Lynnée Denise rediscovers and reclaims Thornton’s life and legacy, a gift to us all.
— Ms. Magazine
Denise reintroduces Thornton as a performer who transcended genres and gender norms.
— The 19th
Denise effectively delivers perhaps her most salient point: Who is authorized to convey the story of these Black musicians?
— The Austin Chronicle