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Ball and Chain

Ball and Chain

Big Mama’s Big Song

There are times when an artist’s impact is best measured not by their commercial success, but by the influence they had on future artists. This is perhaps the best way to understand the legacy of blues icon Big Mama Thornton.

There are a number of reasons to admire the early blues star. She was the first to record the Leiber and Stoller song ‘Hound Dog’ (later made famous by Elvis Pressley). She was one of the first blues singers to find an audience across the Atlantic. And she provided a blueprint for female blues singers of later eras.

But for reasons related to influence, Ball & Chain may be Thornton’s crowning achievement. It was a song that her record company decided not to release until it scored as a hit yeas later for Janis Joplin.

Copyright or copywrong?

Although Bay-Tone Records opted not to release Ball & Chain, they did hold on to the copyright, a move that at he time, probably didn’t matter much to Thornton. But years later, when blues-influenced rock singer Janis Joplin covered her song, Thornton saw no compensation for the song she’d penned.

As the years have passed, the matter has been rectified, with Thornton being rightfully credited as the song’s author.

Ball & Chain may not have been a hit for Thornton, but it might have been her most important and influential song.

Janis in Technicolor

The music created by Janis Joplin and her backing band Big Brother and the Holding Company has been described as ‘blues in Technicolor.’ This accurately describes the vivid sense of chaos that swirls around any of the band’s song – especially their cover of Ball & Chain.’

For all the differences between the two renditions, however, what stands out most are the (often subtle) ways Joplin was vocally influenced by Big Mama. Joplin starts the song in a softer, sweeter place than Thornton did, But she later summons the strength to make a raucous noise that would have made Big Mama proud.

Forgotten but not Gone

Ball & Chain hasn’t become a blues standard in the sense of having been recorded by a huge array of artists, but – as with the song’s originator – its influence is there, haunting the blues world and reminded it of Big Mama’s once mighty presence.

Ball and Chain Lyrics

Sittin' by my window
And I was looking out at the rain
Sittin' by my window, babe
And I was sitting down, looking out at the rain
You know something struck me
Clamped on to me just like, just like a ball and chain

I said oh, oh baby
Why do you wanna do all these mean things to me?
I said oh, oh baby, why do you wanna do
Why do you wanna do all these things to me?
Because you know I love you
And I'm so sick and tired, so sick and tired of being in misery
Hey Hey, ball and chain

I know you're gonna miss me, baby
Oh yes you're going to miss all those sweet things
Oh yes, I know you're gonna miss me baby
Oh I know you're going to miss all those sweet things
And then you'll find that your whole life will be like mine
Oh Lord, wrapped up like a ball and chain

I said oh, oh baby
Why do you wanna do all these mean things to me?
I said oh, oh baby
Why do you wanna do all these mean things to me?
I know my love for you will last forever
It's gonna last, I said it's gonna last
Oh good God almighty
For eternity
Oh yeah

Janis Joplin’s popular version of the song was performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival of 1967.