In many ways, Bessie Smith was lucky to have a seasoned Blues performer as her mentor and teacher. This role model’s name was Ma Rainey, and as the name suggests, she was known as the “Mother of the Blues.” Rainey was an established Blues performer long before the “Crazy Blues” record of Mamie Smith turned the recording world on its head in 1920. Mamie and Bessie were so popular during the 1920’s that they established a new genre called “Vaudeville Blues.” Both singers, however, had a lot to learn about style and delivery from the Mother of the Blues.
“Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, Ma Rainey became the first popular stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues into her song repertoire. She performed during the first three decades of the 20th century and enjoyed mass popularity during the Blues craze of the 1920’s. Rainey’s music has served as inspiration for such [Black] poets as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown,” states www.biography.com.
Thomas A. Dorsey, a Blues pianist and later spiritual singer, knew Rainey as well as anyone on the early Blues circuits. He described her as rather unattractive, but with an unforgettable appearance on stage to go along with her ruggedly powerful voice. Her headband was holding down a horsehair wig, her skin was “richly dark,” she had a gaudy necklace made of $20 gold coins and had a mouthful of gold teeth that “sparkled when she started singing.” Dorsey added, “She was in the spotlight, she possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the Blues with her.”
In other words, Ma Rainey was a sight to behold and had a voice to remember. As music historian Chris Albertson has written, “If there was another woman who sang the Blues before Rainey, nobody remembered hearing her.”
Rainey was also unashamed to publicly state her sexual attraction to women. In “Prove It on Me Blues,” accompanied by a jug band, she sings defiantly:
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and a tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while.
Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.
You sure got to prove it on me.
A recent New York Times article lamented the fact that the paper had largely overlooked the importance of Ma Rainey in Blues history. “As the biographer Sandra Lieb observed in Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey (1983), by combining a black folk style with techniques learned on the vaudeville stage, Rainey ‘offered to whites a glimpse into black culture far less obscured by white expectations, and offered to blacks a more direct affirmation’ of their cultural power.”
Memories of Ma Rainey as the Mother of the Blues resonate in other ways. For instance, she is now remembered in an odd way, through a 1982 work called “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” This play was the first of Black poet and writer August Wilson’s plays to win wide acclaim, and is still among his finest works.
Explains the eNote website: “Set in a recording studio in the 1920’s, the story takes place over the course of an afternoon, as a group of musicians and the legendary Blues singer Ma Rainey record several songs. Much of the play takes the form of discussions and arguments among the four musicians, each of whom brings his own perspective to questions of prejudice and the problems facing Black people in American society.” The play is, in other words, a microcosm of the African American experience.
Just this week, Netflix announced its own upcoming film adaptation of Wilson’s play, produced by Denzel Washington, that will cast actors Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in the leading roles.
The New York Times neatly sums up Rainey’s long career: “She was also a celebrity. Of the nearly 100 songs she recorded in the 1920’s, many were national hits, and some have become part of the American musical canon. Her 1924 recording of ‘See See Rider,’ on which she is accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004.”
Interestingly, there was not enough room for two divas in the same record company: Rainey went to Paramount while her understudy, Bessie Smith, ended up with a Columbia contract.
Then came economic catastrophe. The crash of the US stock market in 1929 almost destroyed the music recording industry. And when the Blues faded from popularity in the 1930’s, the earthy Ma Rainey returned to her Columbus, Georgia hometown, where she ran two theaters: the Lyric Theater and the Airdome. The Mother of the Blues passed away from heart disease in 1939; she was 53 years old.
The Black Bottom song