Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett
Rainey, better known as Ma Rainey
(September, 1882 or April 26, 1886 – December 22, 1939), was one of
the earliest known American professional
blues singers and one
of the first generation of such singers to record.
billed as The
Mother of the Blues
. She did much to develop and popularize the
form and was an important influence on younger blues women, such as
, and their careers.
born in Columbus,
She first appeared on stage in Columbus in
"A Bunch of Blackberries" at 14. She then joined a traveling
troupe, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels
. After hearing a
sad song sung a cappella by a local girl in a small town in
Missouri in 1902, she started performing in this style, and claimed
that she was the one who named it "blues."
In the one known interview she did, Rainey told the following
story, In 1902 "a girl from town... came to the tent one morning
and began to sing about the "man" who left her. The song was so
strange and poignant that it attracted much attention,and Rainey
learned the song from the visitor, and used it soon afterwards in
her "act". Audiences reacted strongly to the song.
She married fellow vaudeville singer William "Pa" Rainey in 1904,
billing herself from that point as "Ma" Rainey. She later had an
unknown number of children, one being Clyde Rainey, who served in
the US Navy. "Ma and Pa" pair toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels
as "Rainey & Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues", singing a mix
of blues and popular songs. In 1912, she was touring with the Moses
Stokes company in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when the young Bessie Smith
was added to the troupe as a
dancer. It has often been said that Rainey taught Smith blues
singing, but such claims are disputed by first-hand observers..
Rainey may well have made Bessie Smith a beneficiary of her own
stage experience — the two women remained good friends as each
pursued her career.
Also known, though less discussed, is the fact that she was
. She was arrested in Chicago in
1925 for hosting an indecent party with a room full of semi-naked
women. Rainey celebrated the lesbian
lifestyle in "Prove It On Me Blues".
Image from Paramount record
In most of her songs, Rainey projected herself as a passionate and
often mistreated lover of men. In private, her preference was for
young men. The poet Sterling Brown
tells of approaching her as a fan with the musicologist John Work.
She immediately propositioned them as she was having trouble with
her young musicians. Brown wrote a moving poem about Rainey and her
huge popularity with Southern audiences.
Rainey was already a veteran performer with decades of touring in
shows in the
U.S. Southern States
when she made her first
recordings in 1923. Rainey signed with Paramount Records
and, between 1923 and
1928, she recorded 100 songs, including the classics "C.C. Rider"
(aka "See See Rider
") and "Jelly Bean
Blues", the humorous "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom", and the deep blues
"Bo Weavil Blues". In her career, Rainey was backed by such noted
jazz musicians as cornet players Louis
and Tommy Ladnier
pianists Fletcher Henderson
, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins
, and clarinetist Buster Bailey
. Rainey recorded two vocal duets
with Papa Charlie Jackson
1928, which proved to be her last recordings; Paramount terminated
her contract soon afterwards, claiming that her material had gone
out of fashion.
Rainey's career dried up in the 1930s--as did the career of just
about every other classic female blues singer of the previous
decade. But her earnings were enough that she was able to retire
from performing in 1933.
returned to her hometown, Columbus, Georgia, where she ran two theaters, "The Lyric" and "The
Airdrome", until her death from a heart attack in 1939.
inducted into the Blues Foundation's
Hall of Fame in 1983, and the Rock and Roll
Hall of Fame in 1990.
One year after Rainey's death, blues singer and guitarist Memphis Minnie
recorded a tribute.
French singer/song writer Francis
refers to Rainey in the song "Cent Ans de Plus" on the
1998 album Hors-Saison
. Cabrel cites the artist as one of
a number of blues influences, including Charley Patton
, Blind Lemon
, Robert Johnson
, Howlin' Wolf
, Willie Dixon
, and Blues Boy Willie
, whose father toured with
American singer/songwriter Bob Dylan
refers to Rainey in the song "Tombstone
" on his 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited.
The 1982 August Wilson
Ma Rainey's Black
took its title from her song of the same name
recorded before 1928, which ostensibly refers to the Black Bottom dance
of the time.
In 1994, the U.S. Post Office
issued a Rainey 29-cent commemorative postage stamp.
her song "See See Rider Blues"
(1925) was inducted in the Grammy Hall of
Fame, and was included by the National Recording
Preservation Board in the Library of Congress'
National Recording Registry in 2004.
The board selects
songs in an annual basis that are "culturally, historically, or
- American Negro Songs and Spirituals John W. Work Crown
Publishers page 326
- Albertson, Chris (1972) Bessie. Stein & Day. ISBN
0-8128-1406-1. (Revised/extended edition (2003) Yale Univ. Press.
- Poetry Out Loud
- Barlow, William. "Looking Up At Down": The Emergence of
Blues Culture. Temple University Press (1989), p. 164. ISBN
- Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of Blues, Penguin
Books, page 387, (2001) - ISBN 0141001453
- Lieb, Sandra R. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma
Rainey, Univ of Massachusetts Press, Page 1, (1981) - ISBN
- Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of Blues, Penguin
Books, page 387
- Ma Rainey Induction Year: 1990
- Memphis Minnie Ma Rainey. OK 08511
- 2004 National Recording Registry choices