Song of the Day: Big Mama Thornton “My Heavy Load”
Big Mama Thornton‘s duet with slide guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell is one of the most purely transcendent and moving moments in American roots music. In Big Mama Thornton, McDowell’s expressive guitar had found a voice capable of matching him note for note in the deeply nuanced pathos he was capable of conveying. The two mesh seamlessly, creating one of the most haunting blues duets you are likely to hear. Fittingly, a truly emotionally heavy performance that perfectly matches the material. The cut comes from Thornton’s In Europe record and is one of two cuts featuring McDowell. The rest of the record features Thornton’s regular electric combo, which included another great blues guitarist in the form of a very young Buddy Guy.
Big Mama Thornton was born Willie Mae Thornton in Ariton, Alabama in 1926. She was not just a formidable singer, but also a talented drummer and harmonica player, frequently accompanying herself and her band while she sang. In many ways, Thornton was not just a rhythm and blues musician, but also one of the founders of rock and roll. She was the first to record the song “Hound Dog” (in 1952) which became a big hit for her before it was eventually overshadowed by the better known version of the song by Elvis Presley. Thornton was known throughout her career both for her talents as a musician as well as her heavy-drinking hard living lifestyle. Her life was cut tragically short in 1984 when she died at the age of 57. She was enormously influential on both a generation of male and female rock and roll and blues singers, most notably Janis Joplin, who largely styled herself upon Thornton’s propulsive vocal performances, hard-living and toughness.