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Singer Ma Rainey was the first popular stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues into her song repertoire and became known as the "Mother of the Blues."
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American blues singer. Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, to minstrel troupers Thomas Pridgett, Sr. and Ella Allen-Pridgett. The first popular stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues in her song repertoire, Ma Rainey performed during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Known as the "Mother of the Blues," she enjoyed mass popularity during the blues craze of the 1920s. Described by African American poet Sterling Brown in Black Culture and Black Consciousness as "a person of the folk," Rainey recorded in various musical settings and exhibited the influence of genuine rural blues. She is widely recognized as the first great female blues vocalist.
Rainey worked at the Springer Opera House in 1900, performing as a singer and dancer in the local talent show, "A Bunch of Blackberries." On February 2, 1904, Pridgett married comedy songster William "Pa" Rainey. Billed as "Ma" and "Pa" Rainey the couple toured Southern tent shows and cabarets. Though she did not hear blues in Columbus, Rainey's extensive travels had, by 1905, brought her into contact with authentic country blues, which she worked into her song repertoire. "Her ability to capture the mood and essence of black rural southern life of the 1920s," noted Daphane Harrison in Black Pearls: Blues Queens "quickly endeared her to throngs of followers throughout the South."
While performing with the Moses Stokes troupe in 1912, the Raineys were introduced to the show's newly recruited dancer, Bessie Smith. Eight years Smith's senior, Rainey quickly befriended the young performer. Despite earlier historical accounts crediting Rainey as Smith's vocal coach, it has been generally agreed by modern scholars that Rainey played less of a role in the shaping of Smith's singing style. "Ma Rainey probably did pass some of her singing experience on to Bessie," explained Chris Albertson in the liner notes to Giants of Jazz, "but the instruction must have been rudimentary. Though they shared an extraordinary command of the idiom, the two women delivered their messages in styles and voices that were dissimilar and manifestly personal."
Around 1915, the Raineys toured with Fat Chappelle's Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Afterward, they were billed as the "Assassinators of the Blues" with Tolliver's Circus and Musical Extravaganza. Separated from her husband in 1916, Rainey subsequently toured with her own band, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets, featuring a chorus line and a Cotton Blossoms Show, and Donald McGregor's Carnival Show.
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In the 1920s, women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were the first—and for a while, the only—artists to record the blues. American women of this era made great strides toward gaining equality and basic human rights for themselves and others in society, including attaining the right to vote and working toward social justice. The 20th century was a wide-open opportunity for women to embrace the modern world, outside of the traditional bounds of the home.
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