She was known as the “Mother of the Blues.” A brash, brilliant performer who captivated audiences with her moving voice and outsized personae. Ma Rainey influenced future legends like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, but it was her own struggle to remain true to herself as a Black artist during the early 20th century that became the inspiration for Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson’s play, the first of his works to be performed on Broadway

Wilson was inspired by a decade-long deep dive into the blues

Born in Pittsburgh in 1945 to a white father and African American mother, Wilson developed a love of literature at an early age but dropped out of high school and briefly served in the U.S. Army before returning to his native city at age 20. He struggled to get by as he began his writing career, supporting himself through menial jobs while also spending his free time in local bars and restaurants, observing the daily struggles, joys and lives of the Black neighbors that would become the focus of his life’s work.

Already deeply influenced by revolutionary Black activists and the works of Black writers like Amiri Baraka and James Baldwin, Wilson began what he described as a near-obsessive exploration into the history of the blues, wearing out records by artists like Bessie Smith and Rainey. As he later wrote, “There was a nobility to the lives of Blacks in America which I didn’t always see... After I discovered the blues, I began to look at the people in the [rooming] house a little differently than I had before. I began to see a value in their lives that I simply hadn’t seen before. I discovered a beauty and nobility in their struggle to survive.”

While he had some success as a playwright and theater director in Pittsburgh, he achieved his creative breakthrough after moving to Minneapolis in 1978, completing his first full-length play, Jitney, the following year. It was the first of what became his “American Century Cycle” or “The Pittsburgh Cycle” — 10 plays set in each decade of the 20th century that explored the African American experience, including Rainey's.

August Wilson, 2004
August Wilson, 2004
Photo: John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Little is known of Rainey’s early years

Born Gertrude Pridgett, Rainey claimed she was born in Georgia in 1886, although recent research suggests she may have been born four years earlier, in Alabama. She was the second of five children and by her early teens had taken to the stage, performing primarily as a vaudeville artist and singer on the tent show circuit. After marrying singer William “Pa” Rainey in 1904, the pair developed a duo, known as Ma and Pa Rainey, although they would later divorce.

Rainey’s early musical influences were the popular vaudeville, minstrel and cabaret music of the era, but during her early touring days, she was exposed to a new form of music, soon to be known as the blues. She quickly became one of the music’s earliest and most influential interpreters, and in turn influenced a generation of blues singers, including the legendary Smith, who Rainey mentored in her early years.

Her deep, brassy voice and “moaning” singing style quickly gained her fans, as did her frank, sometimes bawdy lyrics, which often explored her personal experiences, including her bisexuality and attraction to women, the subject of a number of her songs. She also captivated audiences with her stage presence, featuring flashy clothes, wigs and jewelry, a row of gold-capped teeth and an energetic singing and dancing style that sparked a short-lived dance craze called the “Black Bottom” after one of her songs, and which was later used as the title of Wilson’s play.

'Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom' takes place on one day in 1927

The only one of Wilson’s “Pittsburg Cycle” to take place outside of that city, the play is set inside a recording studio on the South Side of Chicago, where Rainey had settled in the early 1920s. She was near the height of her fame, frequently touring the country and performing with musicians including King Oliver and a young Armstrong.

In 1923, she signed a contract with Paramount Records, becoming one of the first musical artists to record her songs for posterity. But for Black musicians of the day, commercial and popular success often failed to lead to financial security. Tour promoters frequently tried to avoid properly compensating performers, and in the early years of the recording industry, many Black stars signed away not only future royalties to their recordings but often ownership of the songs themselves to white record companies and producers, a form of exploitation and cultural theft faced by Black artists for decades to come.

Wilson delves the racial, economic and cultural conflicts of this period in his play

At the heart of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is Rainey’s determination to stay true to her roots in the face of criticism of her independent streak and domineering personality by her white producer and manager. Her shrewd business sense and determination to avoid the financial pitfalls of other performers mark her out as a difficult diva. For them, Rainey is little more than a cash machine, even if she is one of the most popular entertainers of the time. As she notes, "They don't care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.”

The success of Rainey and other traditional, “country” blues performers did little to protect them from the pressure to record music with a broader commercial appeal. It’s a clash depicted in Black Bottom between not only Rainey and the record company, but from within her own band, as musician Levee, desperately longing for respect and recognition in an era of racial oppression, considers turning away from music born of, and steeped in, both an affirmation of Black life and the struggle for Black self-determination.

Rainey’s career was short-lived

As the play depicts, musical tastes were indeed changing. Despite recording more than 100 songs in a five-year period in the late 1920s, Rainey’s career declined as jazz and other forms of popular music took center stage, and the economic downturn of the Great Depression led to decline in touring opportunities. Rainey effectively retired in 1935, returning home to Georgia where she managed local theaters until her death in 1939.

Because many of her Paramount recordings were of inferior audio quality, her music slipped into obscurity for decades, before they were reissued in the 1960s, helping her posthumously reclaim her role as one of the most important and influential blues musicians and earning her inductions into both the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.