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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
Denise reintroduces Thornton as a performer who transcended genres and gender norms.
Denise effectively delivers perhaps her most salient point: Who is authorized to convey the story of these Black musicians?
~The Austin Chronicle
The enigmatically intelligent and scholarly productive thinker Lynnée Denise, affectionately known as Big Mama Thornton, has made strides in Black realms of music for well over a decade, and is now presenting a new book. The exploration of the life and times of this enigmatic blues visionary gives the artist its due. Why Willie Mae Thornton Matters is a well-written examination of and homage to Black music enthusiasts should collect and enjoy.
~The New York Amsterdam News
Mothering the Blues
The Black South Matters
Sisters of the Dirty Blues
White Boy Magic and the Making of Genre
Grown Little Girls, Tomboy Women, and Black Radio
Don’t Ask Me No More about Elvis
California Love / California Dreamin’
Willie Mae inna England
Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine
Mixtapes, White Biographers, and Black Blues People
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