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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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Draped in long gowns and covered in diamonds and a necklace of gold pieces, Rainey had a powerful command over her audiences. She often opened her stage show singing "Moonshine Blues" inside the cabinet of an over-sized victrola, from which she emerged to greet a near-frantic audience. As Dorsey recalled, in The Rise of Gospel Blues, "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 1926, Rainey performed with her Wild Jazz Cats on the Theater Owner's Booking Association circuit (TOBA). That year, after Dorsey left the band, she recorded with various musicians on the Paramount label--often under the name of Ma Rainey and her Georgia Jazz Band which, on various occasions, included musicians such as pianists Fletcher Henderson, Claude Hopkins, and Willie the Lion Smith, reed players Don Redman, Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins, and trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Tommy Ladnier. In 1927, Rainey cut sides such as "Black Cat, Hoot Owl Blues" with the Tub Jug Washboard Band. During her last sessions, held in 1928, she sang in the company of her former pianist Thomas "Georgia Tom" Dorsey and guitarist Hudson "Tampa Red" Whittaker, producing such numbers as "Black Eye Blues," "Runaway Blues" and "Sleep Talking Blues."
Though the TOBA and vaudeville circuits had gone into decline by the early 1930s, Rainey still performed, often resorting to playing tent shows. Following the death of her mother and sister, Rainey retired from the music business in 1935 and settled in Columbus. For the next several years, she devoted her time to the ownership of two entertainment venues--the Lyric Theater and the Airdome--as well as activities in the Friendship Baptist Church. Rainey died in Rome, Georgia--some sources say Columbus--on December 22, 1939.
Langston Hughes and
Sterling Brown, the latter of whom paid tribute to the majestic singer
in the poem "Ma Rainey," which appeared in his 1932 collection Southern Road.
More recently, Alice Walker looked to Ma Rainey'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 as the first great blues stage singer: "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."
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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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