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Rainey, Ma

Rainey, Ma

April 26, 1886
December 22, 1939

One of the most beloved blues and vaudeville singers of the first three decades in the twentieth century, Gertrude Pridgett "Ma" Rainey, the "Mother of the Blues," was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia. Rainey was the second of five children born to Thomas and Ella Pridgett. She performed in a local show, "A Bunch of Blackberries," at fourteen and married a tent showman, Will Rainey, when she was eighteen. They performed together for several years as a comedy song-and-dance act, billed as the "Assassinators of the Blues," with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.

Supposedly, Rainey coined the term "blues" after she began singing the mournful songs that she had heard sung by a young woman along the tent show's route. Rainey left her husband after twelve years but continued to follow the TOBA (Theater Owners Booking Association) circuit as a solo act because she was so popular with country folk, white and black. She sang with jug bands as well as small jazz bands, which included at times Tommy Ladnier, Joe Smith, and Coleman Hawkins. She was a seasoned performer who sang about the worries and tribulations of country folk in the traditional style of the rural South. Her subject matter was earthy, her renditions were often comedic, yet she did not resort to trivia.

Rainey's first recording, "Moonshine Blues," was produced by Paramount Records in 1923. She recorded a total of ninety-three songs, which included traditional country and folk blues, vaudeville songs, and popular songs. Rainey wrote many of her songs, addressing topics as diverse as homosexuality, prostitution, jail, and the impact of the boll weevil on cotton crops. Although she was over-shadowed by her younger counterpart, Bessie Smith (1894?1937), Rainey had a loyal following until her last days on the tent show circuit in the 1930s. She handled her business affairs well and retired to her native city of Columbus, Georgia, where she opened her own theater. She died there on December 22, 1939.

See also Blues, The; Blueswomen of the 1920s and 1930s; Smith, Bessie


Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Lieb, Sandra R.. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.

daphne duval harrison (1996)

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