Friday, December 11, 2009

Rock Herstory and Appreciation: Happy Birthday, Big Mama!

Prepare to enter the school of rock.

According to my calendar, Willie Mae Thornton was born on this day in 1926. Does the name sound familiar? It should -- my beloved Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, which I shamelessly mention as often as possible, is named for her.

Thornton was better know as Big Mama Thornton, and is remembered today as the original writer of "Hound Dog". Her version of the song sold almost 2 million copies, and she received $500 for it. Several years later, Elvis Pressley took the song, changed the words, re-recorded it, and basically launched rock'n'roll, and became a really huge deal.

You can look at Elvis' theft in two ways: you can focus on how he popularized the and profited from the song and, and see it as another episode in the long history of white artists appropriating African American sounds and culture.

Or, you can look at Big Mama Thornton as the real mother of rock'n'roll and every genre and subgenre that came after. Rock'n'roll as we know it does not start with some lip snarling, hip wiggling, later drug and alcohol abusing white male cultural appropriator. The history of rock'n'roll in fact begins with a black female singer/drummer/harmonica player/songwriter who was apparently probably a lesbian. That's right -- Big Mama Thornton wasn't actually anyone's mama, even though in another way, she's kind of the mother of us all.

So a posthumous though sincere happy birthday to Willie Mae Thornton. Thank you for queering the blues, for the vastly superior original version of "Hound Dog" (in which it sounds like you're the hound dog, sniffing around and wagging your tail at the ladies, AWESOME). Thank you for helping to start all of this. Rock & the Single Girl is really, really glad that you were born.

1 comment:

Star Beat Music said...

I learned about Big Mama in my Jazz and Rock class. I played "Hound Dog" on the Women Rock radio program I did for Women's History Month. Thanks for pointing out it was her birthday today!