Join us for 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.
Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach and writes regularly on popular culture and society. He was one of the former editors for the Music Matters series and co-hosted the Heat Rocks podcast alongside Morgan Rhodes. He’s currently curating an upcoming 2025 exhibit, Cruising J-Town: Japanese American Car Culture in Southern California.