Rainey, Ma (1886–1939)
Rainey, Ma (1886–1939)
African-American blues singer known as the "Mother of the Blues." Name variations: Gertrude Rainey; Madame Rainey. Born Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia; died of heart disease on December 22, 1939, in Rome, Georgia; one of three children of Thomas and Ella Pridgett; married William "Pa" Rainey, in 1904; children: (adopted) son, Danny.
At age 14, made her first stage appearance in a locally produced musical revue in Columbus, Georgia (1900); began touring soon after with traveling tent shows and vaudeville acts; introduced blues numbers into her act (1902); adopted the professional name Ma Rainey after marrying William "Pa" Rainey (1904), with whom she performed a comedy-and-dance routine throughout the South; signed to a recording contract (1923), releasing over 90 blues numbers over the next five years and greatly influencing blues singers who would become better known than herself, such as Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters; watched her career decline during the Depression, leading to her retirement from show business (1935).
After a long, hot day in the parched oil fields of East Texas in the 1930s, workers might seek diversion in one of the traveling carnivals that occasionally passed through the bleak shanty towns scattered among the clanking rigs. After wandering through the tents with bearded ladies, strongmen, and elastic contortionists, some musical entertainment might be found—a collection of tired vaudeville routines and second-rate dance numbers. Few in the begrimed audience would know that the remarkable-looking woman who closed the show, the one in the shabby sequined dress who sang of fickle lovers and lonesome nights with a bottle, had once traveled the Southern vaudeville circuit in style, with her own road show, and that black audiences had come from miles around to hear her; or that the blues and jazz singers they heard on the radio—the ones playing big Northern theaters, making films and touring Europe—owed their success to the woman the barker outside the tent had called "the Black Nightingale."
Ma Rainey would be honored by later generations as the "Mother of the Blues," but no such musical form existed by that name when Gertrude Pridgett was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1886, one of three children of Thomas and Ella Pridgett . The family was not a theatrical one, although it was said that a Pridgett grandmother had taken to the stage just after Emancipation. No doubt Gertrude's parents credited this errant ancestor with their daughter's fascination with the traveling minstrel shows that came through Columbus most summers. These shows, presented by black performers for black audiences, were, ironically, copies of an entertainment form created by whites for white audiences as early as the 1840s. The original minstrel shows were performed by whites in blackface and claimed to accurately represent the songs and dances of African-American slaves in some mythical, halcyon South. After the Civil War, black-originated minstrel shows began touring the South, playing to poor sharecropping families under tents set up in the fields; by Gertrude's time, these "tent shows" had become a standard entertainment form for increasingly mobile black audiences, and were adapted for the stages of urban, Northern theaters. Several permanent companies were touring well-established circuits by the late 19th century, and Gertrude would have delighted in the offerings of Richard and Pringle's Georgia Minstrels, Hicks and Sawyer's Minstrels, the King And Bush Wide-Mouth Minstrels, and Pete Werle's Cotton Blossom Show.
By the time she was 14, Gertrude herself was on the stage in a locally produced revue, "A Bunch of Blackberries," at Columbus' Springer Opera House. Two years later, in 1902, Gertrude joined a tent show and took to the road; and by 1904, she had met William "Pa" Rainey, a song-and-dance man with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. The two were married in February of that year and developed a song-and-dance routine for the Rabbit Foot show.
"The Foots" was one of the most famous minstrel shows of the time, having been organized by an entrepreneur in Mississippi named F.W. Wolcott. The show toured throughout the South, as far north as Virginia, from late spring through early winter, traveling by railroad and performing under an 80'×110' tent. The stage consisted of wooden boards laid on sawhorses, the footlights were kerosene lanterns, and the acts included comedians, jugglers, novelty acts, and "jungle scenes." At first, Ma and Pa Rainey were part of what was called the "After Show," presented after the main acts had appeared; later, they were moved onto the main bill. They performed with a band made up of drums, violin, bass, and trumpet; sometimes Ma would present a solo act, singing and dancing with a jug band as "Madame Gertrude Rainey"; and as early as 1902, even before she met Pa Rainey, she was singing the blues.
She jes' catch hold of us, somekindaway.
Ma Rainey once claimed that she had "discovered" the blues when a young girl in a Missouri town in which she was appearing in 1902 came to her with a sad, poignant song about a lover who had disappeared. Ma said she learned the song by heart, began using it as part of her act's encore, and claimed she had spontaneously coined the term "blues" when someone asked her what kind of song it was. Although Ma Rainey was certainly one of the earliest black performers to standardize the blues for mass consumption, she was merely popularizing a musical form that had been developing for more than half a century. Originally recited unaccompanied as improvised chants based on the work songs, laments, and ballads of plantation-bound slaves, the form had begun to coalesce in the 1890s around a 12-bar structure, with three lines to each stanza, and was usually sung to guitar accompaniment. The term "blues" is thought to derive from the descriptive "blue devils," a term which African-Americans had used since the early 19th century to denote depression or despondency. By the time Rainey's Missouri visitor sang about her lost lover, the blues were already becoming well established, and even Ma later admitted that she heard similar songs in other places on the circuit.
As the blues grew in popularity, so did Ma Rainey's fame, for her voice seemed perfectly suited to the style which people came to call "down home blues." Her voice was not powerful and was sometimes described as harsh, but it was ideally suited to the simple, direct lyrics of the blues, each three-line stanza consisting of two identical first lines and a third line that rhymed with the first. Enthusiastic audiences agreed that no one could put across a blues song like Ma Rainey, and by 1914, when Ma and Pa Rainey joined Tolliver's Circus and Musical Extravaganza, they billed themselves as "Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues."
During these World War I years, it is probable that Rainey met, and shared a stage with, the woman on whom she would have the most influence, Bessie Smith . The two very likely first encountered one another when both were traveling with the Moses Stokes show in 1912, although the cherished story of the Raineys kidnapping a young Bessie from her home and forcing her onto the stage is a false one. While Smith and Rainey shared a liking for stage costuming that included spangled and sequined dresses and heavy necklaces made out of gold coins, and for a style that included much moaning, eye-rolling, and sashaying, they were very different temperamentally. Unlike Smith, known for her hard drinking and sharp, sometimes violent temper, Rainey generally got on with everyone. "I never heard cursin' or nothin' like that," trumpet player Clyde Bernhardt once told biographer Sandra Lieb . "Ma Rainey acted more like a religious person, that's the way she appear to you when you'd be talkin' to her. She had a lovely disposition, you know, and personality." Nonetheless,
Rainey's comedic patter between songs was often vulgar and sexually frank, to the great delight of her audiences, especially since even Ma would readily admit that she was not an attractive woman. Another musician of her period, Jack Dupree, minced no words in once saying, "she was a really ugly woman. But when she opened her mouth—that was it. You forgot everything. She knew how to sing those blues, and she got right into your heart." During these early years of Ma's career, she and Pa Rainey adopted a son, Danny, who joined their act as "the world's greatest juvenile stepper." But it was Ma people wanted to see, and her act soon became permanently solo. Sometime before the end of the decade, she and Pa Rainey separated; and by 1920, Pa Rainey had died.
As World War I came to an end, the blues were taking the country by storm, especially after the release of the first known blues recording, by a black artist named Mamie Smith , a Northerner from Ohio. The record sold thousands of copies, and companies sprang up practically overnight to exploit the new phenomenon of "race records." But while Bessie and other blues singers like Lucille Hegamin , Ida Cox , and Sippie Wallace were quickly signed to recording contracts, Ma Rainey had to wait until 1923 before a talent scout for a Wisconsin company called Paramount Records signed her. Part of the reason for Ma's late entry into the recording business was that her older, Southern style of "Classic Blues" was already being eclipsed by a smoother, more sophisticated form developed in Northern urban centers. Another reason was that Ma Rainey, who continued to tour rural areas of the Deep South well into the 1920s, never had a Northern white promoter (as Bessie had in writer Carl Van Vechten), and never developed the wealthier, urban following that launched the careers of such women as Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter . Additionally, Paramount was chronically on the verge of bankruptcy throughout the 1920s and was unable to take advantage of technical advances in studio recording. Rainey was singing into an old-fashioned horn and recording on a wax cylinder long after everyone else was using microphones and metal master discs, making her records noticeably inferior to those of her peers.
Nevertheless, Ma Rainey's first release for Paramount—"Moonshine Blues," recorded in Chicago in 1923—and the nearly 100 more blues numbers she would record over the next five years, expanded her audience beyond the Southern minstrel circuit to larger cities and more opulent settings. Paramount launched an aggressive advertising campaign for her first record, under the headline "Discovered at Last! Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues!" Later promotions included a Mystery Record contest in which the winner got $14, a free phonograph, and a "souvenir record" with Ma's picture on the label. "The Mother of the Blues doesn't want you to ever forget her," the promotional copy ran, "that's how much she loves her friends!" Also in Paramount's grab bag of slogans and monikers was Rainey's title as "The Gold Necked Woman of the Blues" (referring to her prominent gold necklaces) and "The Paramount Wildcat." Said Mary Lou Williams , "Ma was loaded with diamonds, in her ears, round her neck, in a tiara on her head. Both hands were full of rocks, too: her hair was wild and she had gold teeth! What a sight!"
Between 1923 and 1928, Ma Rainey recorded such blues classics as "See See Rider," "Cell Bound Blues," "I Ain't Got Nobody," "Bo-Weevil Blues," "Jelly Bean Blues" and, with Louis Armstrong, "Counting the Blues," in addition to performing them live before packed houses in Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York, where she recorded with Fletcher Henderson's band. But she never turned her back on the audience that loved her best, the admirers who crowded into rural opera houses and tents during the cotton season and eagerly looked for the big bus emblazoned with Ma Rainey's name in which she and her company toured. By the mid-1920s, Rainey was a leading star of the socalled "Toby tours," playing black theaters throughout the South run by the Theatre Owners' Booking Association (TOBA). By now, she was touring with her own band, variously called The Harmony Boys, The Jazz Hounds, or the Jazz Wildcats, and would open her show by emerging from a giant Victrola, moaning and shimmying her way into "Moonshine Blues." Her son Danny traveled with her and did a comedy routine with Ma in which he danced and sang to "Mama You Done Put That Thing on Me." "This lad has a good and bright future in front of him as a comedian," reported the Chicago Defender after Ma had opened in that city in 1928. "Ma Rainey and the entire company … with each and every member doing a Charleston, closes the show. The house shakes with laughter when The Madam displays her Charleston dancing."
Rainey rarely performed before white audiences, but she did appear more frequently than might be thought in Northern cities. She recorded and appeared on at least two occasions in New York, including Harlem's Lincoln Theater, leading to the confusion known as "the mystery of the two Ma Raineys." Since it was generally believed Ma never appeared north of Virginia, a woman who did appear in Harlem as "Ma Rainey No. 2" in the 1940s, some years after Rainey's death, led to endless speculation and gossip that Ma was still alive. This second Ma Rainey was, in fact, Lillie Mae Glover , a Memphis blues singer who might have appeared with Ma in the 1920s and who recorded for Sun Records in the 1950s as "Big Memphis Ma Rainey." She was still appearing in Memphis night clubs as late as 1981 using that name.
The year 1928 was Ma Rainey's most successful, with 20 titles recorded for Paramount, a lengthy tour of the Midwest and the South with her Paramount Flappers, and the release of a wildly popular song in February called "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," a bawdy number based on a decade-old dance of that name. Audiences howled with laughter when Ma shimmied her way on stage to sing:
Now I'm gon' to show y'all my black bottom, They stay to see that dance.
The dance became so famous that even white artists performed it, although in a much sanitized version; and playwright August Wilson used the phenomenon as the basis for his notable play of the same name, first presented in 1984.
Despite these successes, show business was undergoing a rapid change. Just as the old minstrel shows had given way to vaudeville after the First World War, vaudeville was losing its audience to the new media of radio and film by the late 1920s. TOBA's worst box-office year was 1927; theaters which once played to full houses were now closing, and more sophisticated audiences were flocking to dance halls to hear jazz and a new form which combined jazz, blues, and popular music into something called "swing." Even though 1928 was Ma Rainey's best year in terms of popularity, seven members of her show left because they had not been paid, and during the spring tour, Ma was forced to disband the company and join someone else's in order to keep working. The final blow came with the Depression, which hit Rainey's core audience—rural blacks—the hardest. The TOBA circuit expired in the early 1930s; Paramount Records, which released 100 "race records" in 1930, issued less than a dozen in 1931, none at all the following year, and went bankrupt not long after. "The blues ran out," pianist Thomas A. Dorsey, who played with Rainey's touring show, once observed. "I don't know what happened to the blues, they seemed to drop it all at once, it just went down."
Ma Rainey recorded her last number for Paramount, "Big Feelin' Blues," in December 1928, and by 1930 had to earn her living by appearing with traveling carnivals and what was left of the old tent-show circuit. Gone was the bus in which she had once toured, and for which she had paid $13,000 in cash; it was replaced with a car chassis that some friends made into a house trailer. She cooked her own meals on a small camp stove and improvised her costumes from bits and pieces of the dresses she had worn in her glory days. While Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter and other contemporaries who had made the transition to swing, bebop, radio, and films remained in the limelight, Ma Rainey faded into obscurity.
In 1935, after the deaths of both her mother and sister, Rainey retired from show business and settled in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, joining the congregation at Friendship Baptist Church, where her brother was a deacon. More of an entrepreneur than she is generally given credit for, Rainey had saved enough money from her stage days to buy two theaters in nearby Rome, Georgia—the Lyric and the Airdrome—which she managed until her death from heart disease on December 22, 1939; she had outlived Bessie Smith by two years (Bessie having been fatally injured in a car crash in 1937). Ma Rainey's death certificate lists her occupation as "housekeeper."
Most of Rainey's Paramount recordings remained on a shelf for the next 25 years, impossible to remaster because of their poor quality. But starting in the 1950s, when technology had become sufficiently advanced, many of the old recordings began appearing on the Riverside, Milestone, and Biograph labels; and a revived interest in the blues during the 1970s focused renewed attention on the woman who had prepared the ground under sweltering tents in the fields of the Deep South. "Ma Rainey was a tremendous figure," Southern poet Sterling Brown has said. "She had [the audience] in the palm of her hand. Bessie was the greater blues singer, but Ma really knew these people. She was a person of the folk." Without Ma Rainey, the blues would never have made the transition from a segregated African-American folk tradition to a distinct American musical form, from which sprung jazz, swing, bebop, and rock.
Ma Rainey may have wanted to leave some such message for future generations when she sang "Last Minute Blues" in 1932, as her career was in decline. "If anybody asks you who wrote this lonesome song," the lyrics went, "tell 'em you don't know the writer, but Ma Rainey put it on."
Feather, Leonard. The New Encyclopedia of Jazz. 2nd ed. NY: Horizon Press, 1960.
Lieb, Sandra. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.
Stewart-Baxter, Derrick. Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers. NY: Stein and Day, 1970.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (play with music in two acts) by August Wilson, first opened at the Cort Theater on October 11, 1984, starring Theresa Merritt and Charles S. Dutton, directed by Lloyd Richards.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York