A dazzling entrance, with her ostrich feather fan and glitter headbands, the “Mother of the Blues, “ appeared on stage blowing kisses from an enormous box designed to look like a phonograph, set against a huge eagle backdrop. Adorned with diamonds, a stunning sight; wearing twenty necklaces, sometimes with fifty dollar gold pieces, crowned her with another pet name, “Gold Necklace Woman of the Blues.” Her dresses were embroidered with rhinestones and sequins, but none of this mattered because when she began to sing, “only her words and music got everyone’s attention.”
This pioneering woman known as Ma Rainey, liberated the blues from the backwoods of rural black American, made it an accepted form of professional entertainment, and influences countless singers to this day. Rainey enjoyed mass popularity during the women’s blues craze of the l920’s. (suite101.com)
Born Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett on April 26, l886, in Columbus, Georgia, the second child of Thomas Pridgett and Ella Allen’s five children. Her parents were in minstrel shows and inspired her interest in entertaining. Minstrel shows, despite there ‘racist legacy,” established the groundwork for many forms of American entertainment. They were the first form of American theater that combined: song, dance, drama and comedy in one venue; next minstrel shows used multiple skits similar to the structure of modern sketch comedy; lastly, the jokes used continue to be told today. For example the
joke, “Why did the chicken cross the road was told first in a minstrel show? Scores of
famous African American singers made their debut in a minstrel show, including Gertrude. (Lee, C.) After her few minstrel show performances, at 14 years old, Gertrude started singing solo, at the Springer Opera House in a local talent show called “A Bunch of Blackberries.”
On February 2, 1904 Gertrude married singer William “Pa” Rainey and from that time on was known as Ma Rainey. They performed together as the “Assassinators of the Blues,” touring southern tents and cabarets. Although Ma was raised in Georgia, she couldn’t relate to the style of blues prominent in the state, called Piedmont Blues. Her
form of blues was considered “country,” and later “classic.”
Piedmont blues was used in Georgia, South and North Carolina, and Virginia, in
the l900’s Bruce Bastin, leading expert on Piedmont blues has written that because large numbers of migrating African Americans settled in these areas it became “fertile areas for black musicians to both perform and influence each other.” The most distinguishing difference between Piedmont blues and other styles is that it incorporates ragtime piano rhythms and chord changes in guitar playing. It is often called “finger-picking style,” and “melodic.” (facstaff.unca.edu)
Ma and Pa Rainey joined the Moses Stokes troupe in l912, and met the shows new
dancer and future star, Bessie Smith. She was eight years younger than Ma Rainey, who took Bessie under her direction, but their “messages in style and voices were dissimilar and manifestly personal.” They did write a few songs together, one Ma sang had this line, “Don’t like my ocean, and don’t fish in my sea. Stay out of my valley, and let my mountain be.”
Fat Chappelle’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels were the next group the Rainey’s toured with, in l915. After that they were again billed as the “assassinators of the Blues,” touring with Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza. Ma and Pa’s marriage was turbulent at best, and they separated in l916. Ma then toured with her own band called,
Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and her Georgia Smart Sets. Her act featured a chorus line and a five piece band. She also performed in other shows such as the Florida Cotton Blossoms Show and Donald McGregor’s Carnival Show.
Jay Mayo “Ink” Williams, was a ground-breaking African American producer of recorded blues music. He joined Paramount record label in l924 as producer and talent scout. Williams earned his nickname, “Ink” because of his ability to get the signatures of talented African American musicians on recording contracts. Ma Rainey was one of his
biggest discoveries. She was already extremely popular in the south for more than two
decades when he found her at the Monument Club in Chicago. ( Cohassey, J)
Williams was a sticker for good grammar saying, “You didn’t have a chance with me if you split a verb, even if you were one hell of a singer.” How quickly he changed his
tune after meeting Ma. Despite being illiterate she was an immense talent and caused
Williams to say, “What do you want, good grammar or good blues?” (Lentz, E)
Ma Rainey’s first recording was with Louie Austin and the Blue Serenaders. She
featured they’re traditional songs like, “Bo-Weevil Blues and Moonshine Blues.” Louis Armstrong accompanied her with “Yonder Comes the Blues.” That same year, “See See River was recorded, a song author Arnold Shaw noted in his book “Black Popular Music
in America,” which emerged as “one of the most famous and recorded of all blues songs.”
In August of l924, Rainey along with the twelve string guitar of Miles Pruitt, recorded “Shave ’Em Dry,” observed as the “typical Rainey output, a driving unornamented vocal.”
Blues music was one of the most dominant forms of American song during the 20th Century, originating in the south. A majority of historians agree the foundation of the “blues,” began from the struggles of African Americans for freedom during the days of slavery and forced segregation of the 1800’s and 1900’s.
When brought to America blacks were forbidden to convey their beliefs in their native language. Slaves used gospel music, also known as spirituals, to express their values, relay messages to one another, and to tell stories. They sang a rhythmic “call and response” to ease their cruel labor and to communicate without their masters knowledge. Known as “field hollers,” a respected worker would shout a solo line, and then the rest would repeat a unison line, all while being in tempo with the work at hand. “. These talented solo musicians expanded the “blues” into the 20th century with a style known as “Country Blues. “ The style Ma Rainey would make famous, selling as “many records as many of today’s top artists.”
The term “blues” comes from the way ‘blues’ singers and instrumentalist bend notes. These were called “blue notes” because they were tonally in-between two standard notes. Blue notes opened up a whole world of expression as they “blur the line between major and minor scales.” (arkansasheritage.com)
The biggest influence on Blues music in the 20th century was the migration of African Americans from rural south to urban centers like Memphis, Chicago, St Louis, Detroit and Kansas City in the 1920’s, ‘30’s, and’40’s. Bringing this new style north,
and is largely responsible for shaping America’s popular music, including contemporary rock, jazz, rap and pop. Like most of popular music, African American blues lyrics talked about love, however what was distinctive about the blues, of the l920’s and 1930’s
was their “intellectual independence and representational freedom.” One of the most noticeable ways blues lyrics deviated from that era’s musical culture was their “provocative and pervasive sexual–including homosexual–imagery.”
Blues music reached its commercial apex in the post-WWII years as classic recordings continued until the mid-l950’s. With the bombardment of Rock & Roll, many African American artists fell from the “publics grace as white artists took command of the industry.” By the late l960’s, “blues” had been “embraced by white audiences and was starting to be re-created by white artists,” like Roy Buchanan, Paul Butterfield and The Allman Brothers Band.
Today’s “blues” music has become “a multi-cultural genre,” with artists playing the “blues” in every corner of the world. Texas born, Stevie Ray Vaughan set the “music world on fire,” with his modern combination of Blues and Rock. The instruments have also changed over the years. Beginning with picks and shovels accompanying voices in
field hollers, the Blues migrated to the guitar as the companion instrument, mostly due to its portability, and is still the principal instrument played today.
The “harp” is considered a signature sound in the Blues, because of its ability to bend tones to hit those “blue notes,” with relative ease; along with another convenient
portable instrument, the harmonica. The piano remains a staple instrument in the “blues.” I believe, Ma Rainey would continue her Country Blues style, with a simple
piano and a magnanimous vocal. Most of the time the specific blues style correlated with either a popular artist or the instruments used. (kcbluessociety.com). Blues styles include:
Country Blues – mostly acoustic solo artists.
Delta Blues – acoustic blues from Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana
Peidmont Blues – east cost acoustic artists from West Virginia to Georgia
Chicago Blues – urban electric blues, precursor to Rock & Roll
Kansas City Blues – jazzier, more sophisticated, horn-driven Blues
Memphis Blues – jug band based urban Blues
Texas Blues – tougher, leaner electric sound
West Coast Blues – a smoother swinging jazzier style blues
Now that you have a brief history of the “Blues,” let’s return the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey. Unlike other blues musicians of her time, Ma earned a reputation as a “professional on stage and in business.” Mayo Williams said, “Ma Rainey was a
shrewd business woman. We never tried to put any swindles on her.” During her five
years with Paramount, she cut nearly ninety sides, most of which dealt with love and sexuality. The songs were deeply rooted in everyday experiences of black people from
the south. Rainey’s blues were “simple, straightforward stories about heartbreak, promiscuity, drinking binges, travel, the workplace, the prison road gang and superstition.” Basically her style put the audience right on the southern landscape of African Americans in the Post-Reconstruction Era.
While Ma Rainey was on a Paramount promotional tour, in l924, she met one of the greatest pianists and arranger of the century, Tommy Dorsey. He recruited members for Ma’s touring band, “The wild Cats Jazz Band,” who could play in a down “home blues” style. Dorsey was both the director and manager of the band, whose first performance was at Chicago’s Grand Theater, which marked the first emergence of a “down home” blues artist at this “famous south side venue.” Dorsey recalled, in his book The Rise of Gospel Blues, that “when she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle. She was in the spotlight. She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned as they felt the blues with her.”
Until l926, Rainey performed with her Wild Jazz Cats on the Theater Owner’s Booking Association (TOBA). That same year Tommy Dorsey left the band, but Ma continued to record on the Paramount label with various musicians. She went under the name of Ma Rainey and her Georgia Jazz Band. It didn’t matter which city she was in,
her heart was always in Georgia. By the early l930’s the TOBA and vaudeville circuits were in a fast decline, but for Ma the “show must go on” mentality prevailed. She
resorted back to playing tent shows, but in l935 after the deaths of her mother and sister,
Ma decided to retire from the music business and settle in her home town, of Columbus.
The subsequent years found Rainey spending her time running two of her companies; the Lyric Theater and the Airdome, along with participating in charitable activities at the Friendship Baptist Church. (Cohassey, J.)
Ma Rainey recorded one more song, in l928 before her official retirement. It
was called, “Prove it On Me Blues.” She was often cited with having lesbian desires,
and one line of this song seems to confirm it; “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/they must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men.” The newspaper ad that
promoted the song showed Rainey “dressed in a men’s suit flirting with two other women.”
Her sexuality was also in the public eye when she was arrested in Chicago, in l925 when “police responded to a noise complaint and found a room full of naked women in “intimate situations.” Rainey spent the night in jail for hosting an “indecent party,” and was bailed out the next morning by Bessie Smith. There was always some speculation that Smith and Rainey were romantically involved, but no confirmation was ever made.
Ma was very outspoken on women’s issues, a very unusual attribute for this time period, and heralded as a role model for young women.
During this era most black heterosexual couples, “married or not– had children.” However, blues women rarely sang about family, the absence of the mother figure in the blues did not imply a denunciation of motherhood, but somewhat suggests that blues women found “motherhood irrelevant to the realities of their lives.” In the 252 songs recorded by Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, only four, by Smith, referred to marriage. Again, Rainey by no means avoided her bisexuality, and though it was infrequently discussed, her lyrics told a different story. (hrc.org).
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson, son of a white German baker and a black cleaning woman, received national attention with his play titled, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The title derived from Rainey’s song referring to the Black Bottom dance, which originated in New Orleans in the l900’s. It’ premiered, in l982
at the Eugene O’Neil Theater Center, in Connecticut. Tazewell Thompson, director of the Arena Stage Production, commented that the “real Ma Rainey was a forgotten figure, its been Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters …whom we always hear about and know about.” He
credits Wilson for establishing Ma Rainey in “our conscientiousness as being an important figure in black music.”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” made its Broadway debut in l984. The play is a
“decade – to -decade examination of the 20th century African American experience.” It’s
set in a l927 Chicago recording studio, operated by two white owners, who cater to Ma’s
every whim because she’s their cash ticket. One critic wrote that “Ma Rainey is a tinderbox of overlapping strifes and ignitable motifs”
The play depicts the exploitation of black artists by white record producers and the certainty of “black-on-black violence caused by institutional racism.” Basically,
the play is about “race music” industry on blues performers in the l920’s. Mr. Wilson didn’t just hint at Rainey’s bisexuality, he had once scene were she kissed her girlfriend, Bessie Mae on the lips. The predominately black audiences gasped. “Ma fooled around with young men, but she also liked to be in the company of women,” Thompson responded. “Black Bottom” was fairly true to Ma Rainey’s life, her “vital vulgarity-reinforces the play’s incendiary latticework of race, class, music and cultural identity.”
Ma Rainey’s music not only inspired other musicians, but poets and authors, as well. Sterling Brown paid tribute to in a poem called, “Ma Rainey,” which is included in his l932 collection Southern Road. Author Alice Walker looked to Ma’s music as a “cultural model of African American womanhood when she wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Color Purple.” In “Black Pearls,” Daphane Harrison praised
Rainey by saying, “The good-humored, rollicking Rainey loved life, loved love, and most of all loved her people. Her voice bursts forth with a hearty declaration of courage and
determination–a reaffirmation of black life.” (Cohassey, J.)
One of the stanza’s in Mr. Brown’s poem about Ma Rainey reads:
O Ma Rainey
Now you’s back
Whah you belong,
Git way inside us,
Keep us strong ….
O Ma Rainey
Li’l an’ low;
Sing us ‘bout de hard luck
Roun’ our do;
Sing us ‘bout de lonesome road
We mus’ go ….
Gertrude “Ma Rainey” Pridgett, died on December 22, l939 in Rome, Georgia.
Her obituary described her as a housekeeper, but her recording legacy continues to affect successive generations of musicians. Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in l983 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in l990; she was also honored on a U.S. postage stamp in l994.
On March 28, 2008, the International Herald Tribune, a local Columbus, Georgia
newspaper printed an article by Shaila Dewan titled; A Georgia blues singer’s house is reborn. Curator of the Ma Rainey House, Fred Fussell stated that it “opened four months ago as a small museum in this city on the Chattahoochee River. On display are photos, minstrel show memorabilia, original recordings and theater invoices, but “just that the house is still standing is remarkable.”
The two-story house that Rainey built for her mother was in “slow-motion collapse in l991, when the city bought it for $5,000.” The roof had fallen in, the stairs had fallen out and “Ma Rainey’s piano painted bright green by subsequent residents, was exposed to the elements.” Many in Columbus had either forgotten Ma, or had never heard of her. The mayor at the time, Frank Martin, approved a grant to restore the home.
Tourist can now learn about this priceless woman, who beyond doubt was the “Mother of the Blues.”
arkansasheritage.com. “The Blues in the Arkansas Delta.” Delta Cultural Center. Spring
2000. 11 Nov. 2008 <http://www.arkansasheritage.com/in_the_classroom/lesson
Cohassey, John. “Ma Rainey Biography.” Musicians Guide. 14 Nov.2008
facstaff.unca.edu. “East Cost Piedmont Blues.” UNC Asheville . 25 Oct. 2005
11 Nov. 2008. <http://facstaff.unca.edu/sinclair/piedmoot blues/Default.htm
Gener, R. “Salvation in the City of Bones.” Theater Communications Group. 2006
12 Nov. 2008. <http://www.tcg.org/publications/at 2003/bones.cfm
hrc.org. “Profile: Ma Rainey (1896-1939). Human Rights Campaign. 14 Nov. 2008
kcbluessociety.com. “A Brief History of the Blues.” About.com. 15 Nov. 2008
Lee, Caroline. “Minstrel Shows and their Effect on American Culture.” Helium. 2002
11 Nov. 2008. <http://www.helium.com/items/809399-minstrel-shows-and-their-
Lentz, Eddy. “J. Mayo Williams.” Ivy 50. 26 Dec. 2006. 14 Nov. 2008
suite101.com. “Ma Rainey gets Discovered.” Suite 101. 7 Feb 2007. 12 Nov. 2008.