The Poetry Project

On Gentefied

Pamela Sneed

In 1984, she died of a heart attack in a Los Angeles rooming house.
She was 57 years old.
She stood over 6ft. tall.
She is described as a musician, actor, comedian and dancer
with a large stage presence.
She was first to record one of the greatest hits of Elvis Presley’s career “Houndog.”
It was written by two young male Jewish songwriters
It was meant to be a Black women’s feminist anthem.
She earned 500 dollars in total for the song.
Elvis made millions.
Her personality was described as large and contrary.
Janis Joplin recorded the song she wrote and performed called “Ball and Chain”
which was a great hit and one of Janis’ signature songs.
She was most influenced by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and male blues singers.
Her mother sang spirituals
and her father was a minister.
It is guessed she had 6 or 7 siblings.
When her mother Edna died at 14 she began working in a bar as a cleaner
and then a singer.
By the end of her career she dressed in full men’s drag
She was an early trans performer
before there was a name.
She was a rumored lesbian
there are various accounts.
An album’s liner notes proclaim at one point she was ousted
from the blues community because of her “sexual proclivities”
She struggled with alcoholism.
Every female rock and roll singer today and yesterday owe something to her
From Grace Jones and Annie Lennox who donned men’s drag
To Madonna and Beyoncé
She rarely appears in the academic queer canon
and rock and roll history
She was born in 1926 in Ariton, Alabama.
I am speaking of Blues and rock and Roll singer
Big Mama Thornton.

In 1987, while studying at the New School, Lang College, I wrote my first novel under the tutelage of the writer Jane Lazarre. The novel I wrote centered around the lesbian relationship between two characters and their relationship to family and community. Their names were Louisa and Joe, Louisa was a self destructive alcoholic and Joe was also an outsider who dressed in denim coveralls, work boots and wore a man's hat. They lived in a fictitious Southern town called Lynchburg which has turned out not to be fictional, a town like that actually exists. In the novel's prologue we see Joe who is in her 30s coming to contemplate her life in the small town where she lives. She and Louisa have broken up. Joe has lived her life sheltered and loyal to the family that disregards her. It is described that the town has two roads one which is bright and spacious the other is unlit and parents warn their children as town lore “Only prostitutes and bulldaggers the lowest forms of human life would walk an unlit road.” It is the great unknown. Joe in an act of defiance and wanting to unconsciously take control of her life at the end of the prologue disappears down the unlit road. Because I started writing at age 9 and was early on influenced by sci-fi, I imagined that unlit road was a place where Joe meets other misfits and runaways such as herself but it is also a time tunnel. Instead of a short journey as one would expect, Joe spends a lifetime on the unlit road. When she returns to Lynchburg she is nearing 60 and has morphed triumphantly into the blues singer Big Mama Thornton. Keep in mind I was somewhere in my early 20s when I wrote this. The novel is unpublished.

Recently, I received a performance commission from Denniston Hill. It’s been postponed because of Coronavirus and will be staged in early November 2020 at Triangle Theater in Dumbo. Like Big Mama Thornton, I too was raised in the church. My grandfather was a baptist preacher. My grandmother sang spirituals. I credit the black church for my love and introduction to poetry, the music and art I was surrounded by, and through the lyricism of preachers and women’s testimonies I learned poetry. Through this upbringing I identified with Big Mama Thornton and how she came to music.

Wanting to stretch my wings and also pay tribute, I decided to create a musical and poetry concert where I enacted the music and life of Big Mama Thornton. This is my celebration of the unsung lesbian musician. I saw a semi recent show of The Voice on YouTube where a young white girl sang a moving rendition of “Ball and Chain.” The song was credited to Janis Joplin with no mention of Big Mama Thornton. In many ways she has been disappeared.

By creating and starring in my first musical performance I myself have headed down an unlit road and it is literally me who becomes the aged Blues singer Joe who becomes Big Mama. This has led me to travel many new and unexpected pathways / and while looking at Big Mama Thornton and re-examining my novel about Joe, I am tracing and informally researching the many forms of lesbian representation, in literature, and in tv and film.

I can say wholeheartedly and with gusto we’ve come a long way. When I wrote my novel I was writing characters that didn’t really exist for me to see. My teacher was also shocked that I wasn’t interested in having the novel be solely about lesbianism. She responded by saying just 10 years before there would have never been a way one could write about lesbians without explaining lesbianism or having that be the entire focus of the work. That said, I’ve been watching a lot of television, Gentefied on Netflix which is excellent, deals with the impact of gentrification on a Latinx community in downtown Los Angeles. It examines the relationships in the family. There are two brown skinned lesbian lovers and in the opening episode the mother or grandmother says through a closed door to the young lesbian character something like “Come and get breakfast I know you’re in there with your black girlfriend.” The point being that in the entire series the lesbian relationship isn’t treated any more or less than the other relationships in the story. And in the Netflix series Black Lightning about a black community that in many ways mirrors Flint Michigan or any urban Black community that’s been devastated and experienced systematic oppression, there is a family of superheroes and one of those heroes is a lesbian, Black Lightning's daughter. Again, her relationship is not treated more or less than others. It’s good to see this type of progress on television, though there is still a ways to go.

#261 — Summer 2020