The poet Nikki Giovanni once called Black music “the sound of a woman calling another woman.” This idea resonates after reading Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters by Lynnée Denise, a scholar and DJ whose book is part of the University of Texas’s Music Matters series. Who was Thornton calling out to? Whose ear did she hope her voice would capture?
It feels impossible that Willie Mae Thornton, aka “Big Mama” (a nickname Denise avoids), is a woman we now strain to hear. Thornton is today mostly known as the first to record “Hound Dog,” a song that lost its tether to her once Elvis Presley recorded it in 1956. Though she graced stages from San Francisco to London, Willie Mae started out in Alabama, one of six children of a minister and a mother she called “Christian-hearted,” who led the church choir. Born in 1926, Willie Mae held the spirit and the song intertwined in her, in a melding Denise calls “blues ministry: an integrated sound made up of jook joint decadence and old-time religion.”
She left home at age fourteen, finding her way in Vaudeville with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue. On tour, Willie Mae gave birth to a son. Though she tried to keep him, he was taken by state authorities, leaving a hole in her heart. What became of the child is one of many mysteries in Willie Mae’s life; he’s unnamed and unknown, a puzzle Denise tries to solve, invoking the recurring theme of motherhood in its traditional sense, as well as in the sense of community and in the communal ties that are passed through generations and songs.
Denise identifies a continuum of nurturers that includes Diamond Teeth Mary, the woman who brought Willie Mae onto the Hot Harlem Revue; writer Zora Neale Hurston; harpist Dorothy Ashby; Angela Davis and her seminal text, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism; and Denise’s own grandmother, “Dorothy Gathright (the first bluesy woman I ever met).”
Willie Mae’s spirit and her music moved people around the world, but rigid racial and gender constructions limited its reception. Labeled as R&B, Thornton was seen as niche, relegated to “other.” Nevertheless, she influenced generations, from Janis Joplin (who recorded the Thornton-penned “Ball and Chain” in 1968) to legions of budding musicians today who enroll at her namesake camp. Nearly forty years after her death, Denise has reconstructed Thornton’s life and work, recontextualizing her in music history, Black history, women’s history, queer history. Denise’s book is a meditation on the intersection of Thornton’s life with various strains in American society, creating the full texture and sound of an individual life. Denise spoke about her research methods, sonic geography, and the path Willie Mae created over Zoom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters is part of a series—“Music Matters.” For you, why does Willie Mae Thornton matter?
I’ve heard “Hound Dog” in my life and distantly I understood that Willie Mae Thornton was, in fact, Big Mama Thornton, this woman who sang the song first and Elvis took it away. I had the narrative so many of us have, but that narrative, I realized, is a source of erasure of her forty-year career. That one song, that injury, erased her history.
I remember being in bed, and it was a 1970 Chicago performance of her with the Buddy Guy band, and the power that that woman yields in that live performance—it took me. “Who is…? What?” And from that point on it was, “Google, is there anything written about her?”
There’s one book, and it’s by a German who did the best job he could considering, but I felt like it was my responsibility to think with her some more. So, University of Texas Press reached out to me and said, “Would you write about Prince?” and I was like: “No.” I love him too much, and I don’t want that kind of relationship with him after he passed. I’d rather write about this Black woman who has been constantly overlooked and who deserves scholarly review and close listen.
Can you talk a little bit about your research process?
This research process is informed by my decades-long approach to the mixtape, it always comes with curiosity about the context of the music. I start by listening. I might have a theme, say, free jazz in the 50s. That’s the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s also the kind of pre-Black nationalist moment. Listen to these sounds; they’re not necessarily in conversation with civil rights sounds, which might be more gospel oriented. That’s what I mean.
It was about going through each phase of her life. And thinking: What is Vaudeville? What was Vaudeville like for Black folks—what Vaudeville would have meant for Willie Mae as a teenager in the 40s. The queerness she was exposed to. What Vaudeville provided for wayward women, to leave their homes and sometimes their children and their men. And wow, this is an interesting way to be thinking about who gets to leave, who has to stay. That’s a story about the blues that we don’t hear enough about.
I went through each chapter, thinking with the time, the sound, looking at the album covers from like, the 1950s. You know, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Marie Adams, Little Richard who was down with Willie Mae…. And then who’s shaping him as a queer artist? Rosetta Tharpe. I was thinking about mapping and using [Willie Mae] as a guide because it’s not a traditional biography in that there’s a lot of other information that I’m using to contextualize her because there isn’t a tremendous amount of information available.
So the strategy has to be, well then, I have to talk about women in the dirty blues and how a Black woman is responsible for shaping, forming, and institutionalizing the Chitlin’ Circuit. I was taking these points that I’ve always thought about: What is the role of Black women in the creation of genre and the cultural institutions around genre? And where do we factor in queerness when we’re talking about the Chitlin’ Circuit? What else do we know about migration beyond this kind of linear movement from south to the north? What about when Black folks are moving throughout the South? What do we know about how Black Americans landed in Europe? And what it meant for them to experience a kind of confusing, humanizing interaction with promoters and audience members? Should we celebrate that? Those kinds of things.
You’ve coined the term “DJ scholarship.” What does it mean to you to be both a DJ and a scholar, fields that many see as disparate?
The guiding principle of DJ scholarship is thinking about how scholarship is dependent on the DJ obviously, but I would [also] say, thinking about the early history of the role of the DJ—and when I say early, I’m actually thinking about Jamaica, and sound systems. And I’m thinking about Black, queer DJs in the 80s, and their practices. The things they did before arriving on the dance floor. And those practices are oftentimes rooted in research, investigation, deep listening, and studying album cover art.
In the context of hip hop, which is the generation I’m coming out of, I think about transferable skills brought into writing that come from chasing samples and digging through the crates. Investigative practices—close listening and reading in terms of liner notes.
Those practices lead a range of disciplines. Like if we’re talking about album cover art, then we’re talking about visual culture. Perhaps I can use those skills to analyze album covers to understand [other artists like] Wangechi Mutu, or Basquiat, or Kerry James Marshall, you know? I felt at home in museums because of the work that Pedro Bell did as an album cover art designer for Parliament/Funkadelic. DJs are training themselves as scholars, as students of the sounds, genres and times that the music is created in. DJ scholarship is the foundation, a method. It’s a conceptual framework, a theoretical framework.
Vinyl as an archive. I think about DJs that used to do cover ups. They would get new records but scratch out the label because they didn’t want anybody to know what they’d discovered.
A sonic signature. Those were Jamaican DJs battling in these sound clashes, in the late 50s, early 60s, crossing out their labels, to maintain a signature sound.
You’ve created your own signature sound in that this isn’t a traditional biography. Talk about how you decided that this story would be more meditative than chronological.
“Meditative” is an interesting word; it’s a compliment. I think it speaks to your intuition, because I wrote the majority of it in this space [Denise’s home in Amsterdam] through the pandemic. There’s a level of quiet in that book that’s reflective of the fact that we were all having to have rituals and establish a schedule. You’re on your own time. But also, there was [emotional] debt; competing emotions because when you’re writing someone else’s biography, quite honestly, it’s an ongoing confrontation with your biography.
You write about the idea of understanding your subject in a different way because of shared experiences. Even though this is a book for a general reader, there were spots when I felt, “Oh, she’s talking to us [Black people].” Was this a conscious decision?
I want to call them culturally-coded gems. And the thing about it is, I didn’t even think twice. I’m constantly talking to Black people. That’s who I’m talking to. And also, do know there are times, when I’m talking to white folks, when I’m talking to Black men, when I’m talking to Black women. They’re different people and readers, different members of audiences that I had in mind, but my base is Black folks, specifically because the blues has been written about by non-Black people for far too long. They were not invested in providing the social context, adding a kind of narrative note that lets us know who and where they are positioned as authors. I was very intentional. It’s a love note.
I’ve challenged myself to believe that in that targeted approach I’ve learned from Toni Morrison, it would be universal. It is possible for Black folks and our coded culture to be universal in the way that we have embraced Russian literature as universal.
Mothering is a strong theme in the book: How we mother ourselves, how we form communities to mother those who are motherless, but also in the ways of the foremothers of a genre. How does that square with your decision not to call Thornton “Big Mama?”
General readers don’t know that part of the series is about incorporating personal narrative so, I had to start with my own mother. I had to think about how Willie Mae dropped out of school in the fourth grade because her mother died. I had to think about all the women—people, not just women—who had to mother her.
And I was thinking in a gendered way about mothers of blues scholarship—Black mothers of blues scholarship—that get written out of how we think about blues scholarship in America. About Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who edited Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. One line that she writes which I opened with: “Mother is the single most interesting and confusing word that I know. Next to Black.” It’s a thread that I want to create this fabric around.
The mothering thread also was inspired by a kind of literary violence, or maybe irresponsible storytelling, on the part of the first biographer who mentioned that Willie Mae had a child taken from her by the state and then moves on to the next chapter and never brings it up again. I was like, “Are you kidding me?”
But I don’t want to get it twisted and call her Big Mama with the same emphasis on her size that [Apollo Theater owner] Frank Shipman, the white man who named her, had in mind. His naming of her is connected to a violent history of the magnification of bigger Black women, the erasure of their talents, and the kind of privileging of their size when talking about their music.
Perhaps she’s her lover’s Big Mama. Maybe she’s her son’s Big Mama. Maybe her son had children, and she’s somebody’s Big Mama, who she never met.
You write that naming for Black people is a contested site, so in purposely avoiding that name, and saying so, you’re giving her back her name.
Well, I got her name back from Ray Charles. He gives me the confidence, who put the fire under my work, to reclaim her and learn her differently. She referred to herself as Big Mama, right? So, I’m not taking that away. But I’m wanting us to pause and call her by her full name and then decide what we want to do.
You talked about Black geographies and place as sound, which touches on the idea that music and place are connected.
Mark Anthony Neal in his book, What the Music Said, introduced me to the notion of a Black American diaspora. And in that context, I understood the Black south as a motherland of Black American cultural thought, because oftentimes, you know, thinking about where we “landed,” where we were taken, where the first generation of Black Americans began, like, what are the sounds that those people made? Those sounds are intricately connected to Chicago blues, Detroit techno, New York freestyle, DC gogo, the Baltimore bounce.
And then the things that happened to Black folks as they left the South, even if they stayed within the South, or if they moved to the Midwest, like Muddy Waters to Chicago, or they made their way to Cali or up north. They were traveling with the sounds of the places where they were before and then they landed and created a new sound: the urban blues.
This environment calls for different sounds. I now plug my guitar into an amplifier, and so my style of play is going to change. And then white boys in the UK are listening to that. And they are going to be in conversation with what is happening in Liverpool and Manchester and London. Then they’re going to create their own sound based on these Black sounds. So, then we get a British invasion of Black geographical sounds. We get Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, you know, listening to Muddy Waters, Tina Turner, Rosetta Tharpe, and Willie Mae Thornton, and giving us sounds that are connected to place.
This is also a queer text. You write about decoding, and that the Hound Dog songwriters were unable to decode what Willie Mae was saying. I took that as decoding in the sense of understanding, but also de-coding as in removing the code. She’s queer coded with her persona and outfits and the way she carries herself, but they wanted to take that away. They wanted to strip that queer coding.
I love the term “queer coded.” That’s what it is. It makes me think about the 1990s, when I first came out. We were using the word family to talk about code: “Hey, you think she’s in the family?” And the answer, or the question, is about perhaps the codes that we were thinking, reading and translating.
I was writing the book as a long-lost niece. At the same time, there’s nowhere in the books, in the references where she said, “I am queer. I am gay. I am lesbian.” That’s a projection because of how we read gender and how she performed it. What is also queer about her just using that turn-of-phrase loosely, or generically, is that she played two instruments that are heavily associated with blues men: harmonica and drums. Willie Mae is a great place to think with queerness [and] non-normative ways of being and sounding and singing. But yeah, [my book] is written by a Black queer woman from LA who grew up in the 80s, and my queerness is connected to ghosts because my queerness is connected to AIDS.
What I often talk about in my work is a disappearing dance floor. My queer coding is about how Black queer people are at the root of genres of music like house, and hip hop, and techno, and written out of those stories and it’s time to write us back in. Let’s normalize Black, queer cultural production, Black queer musical innovation. We don’t really think about that enough.
With “Hound Dog” you’ve torn apart a cultural touchstone and rebuilt it. What does it mean to play with those kinds of sacred icons like Elvis— he’s less of a person and more of an ideal at this point?
I was gonna go a whole other route. I was gonna start from “Elvis was a hero to most…” [from “Fight the Power”] The Public Enemy song from 1989 is setting us up: James Brown. End of Reagan’s presidency. All these folks dead from AIDS, mass incarceration, crack epidemic. And then you bring in Elvis and John Wayne as part of the structure of stealing that we call the “music industry.” Elvis is a shortcut for the music industry—this hyper exploitative, very masculine, extractive plantation model.
Then I remembered that I came across Alice Walker’s [short story] “Nineteen Fifty-five.” And I said, “this is the answer.” I want to think about Elvis and Willie Mae with a Black woman who has already given us the singer Shug Avery. I already trust her with the blues. She just does an incredible thing, and all I did is describe it and explain it and put in Willie Mae. Alice Walker did an incredible amount of homework for that short story. All I did was play with it. It truly is a remix.
I think about a double Dutch entry. About that movement before you jump in the rope. I think of that story as being the ropes. And I jumped in, like, here’s my signature jump: Bam. Bam. Turning. I’m turning. And at the end of my journey of this book, I was forced to have two things for Elvis: respect for his actual talent and compassion for the fact that he too was eaten by the machine. It had so much texture, that there was room for me to jump in the ropes and play with what was already there.