Who Was Ma Rainey?
Ma Rainey was 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 1920s. Rainey's music has served as inspiration for such poets as Langston Hughes. 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 was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, to minstrel troupers Thomas Pridgett, Sr. and Ella Allen-Pridgett. 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.
With the help of Mayo "Ink" Williams, Rainey first recorded for the Paramount label in 1923 (three years after the first blues side recorded by Mamie Smith). Already a popular singer in the Southern theater circuit, Rainey entered the recording industry as an experienced and stylistically mature talent. Her first session, cut with Austin and Her Blue Serenaders, featured the traditional number "Bo-Weevil Blues." Fellow blues singer, Victoria Spivey, later said of the recording, as quoted in The Devil's Music, "Ain't nobody in the world been able to holler 'Hey Boweevil' like her. Not like Ma. Nobody."
In 1923, Rainey also released "Moonshine Blues" with Lovie Austin, and "Yonder Comes the Blues" with Louis Armstrong. That same year, Rainey recorded "See See Rider," a number that, as Arnold Shaw observed in Black Popular Music in America, emerged as "one of the most famous and recorded of all blues songs. (Rainey's) was the first recording of that song, giving her a hold on the copyright, and one of the best of the more than 100 versions."
In August 1924, Rainey — along with the 12 string guitar of Miles Pruitt and an unknown second guitar accompanist — recorded the eight-bar blues number "Shave 'Em Dry." In the liner notes to The Blues, folklorist W.K. McNeil observed that the number "is typical of Rainey's output, a driving, unornamented vocal propelled along by an accompanist who plays the number straight. Her artistry brings life to what in lesser hands would be a dull, elementary piece."
'Down Home' Blues Image
Unlike many other blues musicians, Rainey earned a reputation as a professional on stage and in business. According to Mayo Williams, as quoted in the liner notes to August Wilson's 1988 play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, "Ma Rainey was a shrewd businesswoman. We never tried to put any swindles on her. During Rainey's five-year recording career at Paramount, she cut nearly ninety sides, most of which dealt with the subjects of love and sexuality — bawdy themes that often earned her the billing of 'Madam Rainey.' As William Barlow explained, in Looking Up at Down, her songs were also "diverse, yet deeply rooted in day-to-day experiences of Black people from the South. Ma Rainey's blues were simple, straightforward stories about heartbreak, promiscuity, drinking binges, the odyssey of travel, the workplace and the prison road gang, magic and superstition — in short, the southern landscape of African Americans in the Post-Reconstruction era."
With the success of her early recordings, Rainey took part in a Paramount promotional tour that featured a newly assembled back-up band. In 1924, pianist and arranger Thomas A. Dorsey recruited members for Rainey's touring band, The Wild Cats Jazz Band. Serving as both director and manager, Dorsey assembled able musicians who could read arrangements as well as play in a down "home blues" style. Rainey's tour debut at Chicago's Grand Theater on State Street marked the first appearance of a "down home" blues artist at the famous southside venue.
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."
Later Years and Death
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.
A great contributor to America's rich blues tradition, Rainey's music has served as inspiration for African American poets such as 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 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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