With utter contempt and disregard for any and everything she was supposed to be, Big Mama broke every rule and pushed every boundary, tearing down gender norms and all expectations of what women, and particularly Black women, were expected to be as she took command of her music, her image, and the stage, as a force to be reckoned with.
It was never about singing pretty. It was about sass. Passion. Willie Mae received her nickname, “Big Mama,” for her commanding presence, both on the microphone and on stage. Tall in stature, and adorned in masculine clothing and style, Big Mama kicked down doors and broke down barriers for women in music. Her brand of songs were unlike anything else in R&B at the time, sexualized and confrontational about gender expectations, and opened the door widely for performers of all walks and all stripes in rock n’ roll. She was a major influence on the legendary Janis Joplin, who patterned herself after Big Mama’s tough and uncompromising image, and raspy, boisterous vocal stylings, and even covered Big Mama’s original tune, “Ball n’ Chain.”
Influenced by, and alongside, other legendary queer, Black female blues & rock n’ roll pioneers, such as Bessie Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ma Rainey, and Lucille Bogan, Big Mama’s contributions and influence on rock n’ roll can’t be overstated.
The Freddy Bell rewrite that became the smash hit for him obscured the lyrics, adding lines like, “you ain’t never caught a rabbit,” altering the meaning entirely away from a song written with the purpose of centering and empowering women.
Sometimes Pride is about setting the record straight.
It’s about saying, were it not for Big Mama, a strong, beautiful, proud, raucous, Black, queer woman, or her contemporaries, there would have been no rock n’ roll. The sound, the swagger, the passion, the raw intensity, the liberation… it belongs to Big Mama and her peers and influences.
Rock n’ roll was started by Queer, Black women.
And Big Mama and her fellow queens say,
You be you.
You be loud.
You be proud.
You be free.
And don’t let anybody else tell you any different.
You have the power.
So pick up your swagger and tell ‘em like it is.
Happy Pride, all.
Jonathan Bristow - Ascent Creator & Director.
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