Two years ago in March for Women’s History Month, I featured writers and authors who sent in guest articles about Women in History and Women Making History here at Oh, for the Hook of a Book! Now, it’s time for a new Celebrating Women Series for 2017. You can find a main page for this with explanation and link to all articles here. I’ll add the article as I schedule or post them.
To start things off for 2017, author Robert Dean writes about Big Momma Thornton, a blues singer like no other! Without further ado, here is article #1 in the series.
Howling the blues: the deadly vibrato of Big Momma Thornton
by Robert Dean, author of The Red Seven
If there was ever a strong woman who didn’t take no backseat to a man, it was Willie Mae “Big Momma” Thornton. The Queen of The Blues, long before Koko Taylor, Big Momma could out drink, out sing, and out blow on a blues harp better than her male contemporaries. With her booming voice, her soulful swagger, Big Momma Thornton was a dominating presence in the heyday of the blues.
Her musical style was unique because of her ability to project a loud, booming voice over the swinging band, creating a swagger that the men just couldn’t truck with. That was Big Momma Thornton, a stylistic hooligan who refused to play by the rules of the industry.
Her backbone of religious music gave her pause for her spiritual crimes, but her love of the bottle led her to her death in 1984, but in between the cradle and grave – you couldn’t find a woman who took the magic of Bessie Smith, or the heartbreak of Mahalia Jackson, and made it her own, but with a shattered glass exterior.
She wasn’t trying to be pretty, to be timid – instead, her music was vicious, it was sexual and without pause. By acting a fool, showing off her bedroom charms, she was one of the few who helped lay the groundwork for what would incubate rock and roll.
A woman taken by the blues
Hound Dog ain’t Elvis’ tune. It was hers. Ball and Chain didn’t belong to Janis Joplin, but yet again, it was a cover of a Big Momma cut. Acting as a beacon of strength for independent black women, Big Momma Thornton was an idealist, in that she took life by the hair and swung it around, on her terms and without the governance of a man telling her what to do.
In a time when it was hard enough being a woman in the music business, Big Momma Thornton challenged gender norms by dressing like a man in slacks and collared shirts and was openly gay. She drank with the men in her life, and when one would get out of line, she’d box his ears in just the same.
And when she picked up a harp, could she blow. Performing Down Home Shakedown Big Momma Thornton held court against the greats of her time such as John Lee Hooker – She could run through the lines of a song with as much flair as Little Walter, or with the bite of Howlin’ Wolf, and both men respected her for it.
A lesson in flipping the script on gender roles
As we make efforts to show the immeasurable contributions made by women in popular culture, and the world in 2017 – you can’t gauge the influence of Big Momma Thornton. She was just too much, too big. You ain’t getting Amy Winehouse or Janis Joplin’s bravado without Big Momma. She opened the door for ladies to box on their heels for their space and their rights in the world of men.
She was one of a kind and certainly one of the greatest voices in blues. Without her, who knows who we’d have missed. But, having her we’re treated for all time to a sound that is bonafide, a chaotic, rattle the doors off the joint gift like no other.
Get to your local record store and buy some Big Momma Thornton wax, it’ll get you right in ways you didn’t know you were wrong.
Robert Dean, Biography –
Robert Dean is a writer/journalist/cynic. His most recent book, The Red Seven is available now from Necro Publications. He’s currently at work on his third book. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Photos of Big Momma Thornton pulled from Internet –
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