Ball and Chain (Big Mama Thornton song)

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"Ball and Chain Part 1"
Ball and Chain Part 1 single cover.jpg
Single by Big Mama Thornton
from the album Ball and Chain
B-side"Wade in the Water"
Released1968 (1968)
Songwriter(s)Willie Mae Thornton a.k.a. Big Mama Thornton

"Ball and Chain" (also "Ball 'n' Chain" or "Ball & Chain") is a blues song written and recorded by American blues artist Big Mama Thornton. Although her recording did not appear on the record charts, the song has become one of Thornton's best-known, largely due to performances and recordings by Janis Joplin.

Background and releases[edit]

In the early 1960s,Thornton recorded several songs for Bay-Tone Records. Two were released on a single, "You Did Me Wrong" and "Big Mama's Blues".[1] A review by Billboard magazine noted "moderate sales potential",[2] but it did not enter the magazine's R&B single chart.[3] According to music writer Gillian Gaar, Thornton also recorded "Ball and Chain" for Bay Tone, although it was never released.[4]

In 1968, Arhoolie Records released "Ball and Chain".[5] An edited version, titled "Ball and Chain Part 1" was released as a single, while the complete four and a half minute song is included on a joint album by Thornton, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Larry Williams titled Ball and Chain.[6] Thornton is backed by a small combo with her frequent guitar accompanist Edward "Bee" Houston.[7] She later recorded several live and studio performances of the song, included her 1969 Billboard Top 200 album Stronger Than Dirt.[8]

Janis Joplin / Big Brother and the Holding Company renditions[edit]

Janis Joplin, who frequently acknowledged Thornton's musical influence, recorded several live performances of "Ball and Chain". According to Big Brother and the Holding Company guitarist James Gurley, Joplin first heard the song during a performance by Thornton at a bar in San Francisco.[9] The group transformed the song into a slow minor-key blues with breaks.[9] They performed the song at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 to an enthusiastic audience and critical reception.[10] The first performance on June 17 was not filmed, so the band was persuaded to perform the song again on the next day. This shorter version (without Gurley's extended guitar solo) was released in the 1968 film Monterey Pop, while the longer June 17 version was released in 1995 on the Joplin compilation 18 Essential Songs. Another live version of "Ball and Chain", recorded March 8, 1968, at the Fillmore East, was included on Big Brother's 1968 breakthrough album Cheap Thrills. Other live versions are included on Cheaper Thrills, Live at Winterland '68, Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968, The Woodstock Experience, and In Concert.

Copyright issues[edit]

According to Gaar, Thornton originally had recorded the song for Bay-Tone Records in the early 1960s, although the label did not issue it.[4] Gaar adds that "[Bay-Tone held] on to the copyright—which meant that Thornton missed out on the publishing royalties when Janis Joplin recorded the song later in the decade."[4] However, Thornton's (and Big Brother/Joplin's) releases list "W.M. Thornton" as the songwriter, as well as the performing rights administrator BMI.[11] By another account, Thornton signed an agreement with Bay Tone which caused problems with later releases.[12] In a 1972 interview, Thornton acknowledged giving Joplin permission to record the song and receiving royalty payments from its sales.[13]


Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain" is included on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll".[14]


  1. ^ Bay Tone Records no. 107
  2. ^ Billboard (May 15, 1961). "Reviews and Ratings of New Records". Billboard. 73 (19): 49. ISSN 0006-2510.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  3. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1988). Top R&B Singles 1942–1988. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research. p. 411. ISBN 0-89820-068-7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  4. ^ a b c Gaar, Gillian (1992). She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. Seattle: Seal Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-1580050784.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  5. ^ Dahl, Bill (1996). "Big Mama Thornton". In Erlewine, Michael (ed.). All music guide to the blues : The experts' guide to the best blues recordings. All Music Guide to the Blues. San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books. p. 251. ISBN 0-87930-424-3.
  6. ^ Ball and Chain (Back album cover). Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin' Hopkins, Larry Williams. Arhoolie Records. 1968. 1039 – via Discogs.CS1 maint: others (link)
  7. ^ Schulte, Tom. Bee Houston: The Hustler – Review at AllMusic. Retrieved May 10, 2013.
  8. ^ Mercury Records SR 61225
  9. ^ a b Friedman, Myra (2011). Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin. Crown Publishing Group. p. 334. ISBN 978-0307790521.
  10. ^ Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 47 - Sergeant Pepper at the Summit: The very best of a very good year. [Part 3]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.
  11. ^ "Ball and Chain (Legal Title) – BMI Work #82820". BMI. Retrieved September 16, 2014.
  12. ^ Spörke, Michael (2014). Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music. McFarland Inc. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-7864-7759-3.
  13. ^ Sporke 2014, p. 70.
  14. ^ "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 1995. Archived from the original on May 2, 2007. Retrieved May 10, 2013.