Rainey, Gertrude "Ma" (1886-1939)

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Rainey, Gertrude "Ma" (1886-1939)

Gertrude "Ma" Rainey is known as the "Mother of the Blues." Born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia, on April 26, 1886, Rainey was the first woman known to sing the blues, combining country blues simplicity with more urban styles. Her accompanists included Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. More commonly, however, her accompaniment consisted of an old-style jug or a washboard band.

Rainey began her entertainment career when she was still a teenager. At fourteen, she started singing in front of audiences, and not long thereafter she began touring with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. It is commonly held that while touring with the Minstrels she taught Bessie Smith. Rainey is given credit for being the first woman to bring the blues into the popular entertainment of her day—vaudeville, minstrel, and tent shows. In 1904 she married Will "Pa" Rainey, an elderly entrepreneur of the minstrel circuit, and thus got the name by which she became famous. She and her husband had an act billed as "Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues."

During the 1910s and 1920s, Ma Rainey became a solo act and the foremost proponent of the blues style. She was the most rural of the classic blues singers, drawing most of her support from a Southern audience. She picked up a number of other nicknames, including the "Paramount Wildcat" (for the Paramount record company) and "Gold Necklace Woman of the Blues" (for the necklace of gold coins which she always wore in performance). She earned for the blues its reputation as a "low down music." Her open bisexuality did a great deal to foster that reputation. Rainey's advertisement for the notorious 1928 record "Prove It on Me," featured her in a man's outfit coming on to two women. The lyrics were similarly challenging: "Wear my clothes just like a fan. / Talk to gals just like any old man; / 'Cause they say I do it, ain't nobody caught me, / Sure got to prove it on me." The song confirmed Rainey's independent image and advocacy of women's issues. Rainey practiced what she preached and controlled her own career; she was famous for her business acumen and always carried a trunk full of money.

In 1923, the thirty-eight-year-old Rainey began recording for Paramount Records. She recorded more than 100 sides in her six years at Paramount, including "C.C. Rider" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." However, male blues singers soon began to surpass female blues singers in popularity while the blues in general went into a decline. Rainey's last recording was in 1928, but she continued to perform until 1935, when she left the circuit and went back home to Columbus, Georgia, where she ran two theaters until she died in 1939 of heart failure.

Rainey had followed the path of other blues singers, returning to the church in her later years. She became active in the Congregation of Friendship Baptist Church, joining her brother who was a deacon there. In 1983 Ma Rainey was posthumously inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame. In 1990 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame followed suit, citing her as an early influence on Rock and Roll. In 1994 the U.S. Postal Service honored her with a stamp.

—Frank A. Salamone

Further Reading:

Davis, Angela. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York, Pantheon Books, 1998.

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

Stewart-Baxter, Derrick. Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers. New York, Stein & Day, 1970.