Jason Howard Green

Jason Howard Green

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Ma Rainey: Mother of the Blues

Gertrude Pridgett has been called the Mother of the Blues.  She is known by most as simply Ma Rainey.  Although her actual birthdate has been questioned, it has been assumed that she was born in April of 1886.  She was born in Georgia.

She was the second of five children of Thomas and Ella Pridgett, from Alabama. She had at least two brothers and a sister named Malissa.  She came onto the performance scene at a talent show in Columbus, Georgia when she was 12–14 years old. A member of the First African Baptist Church, she began performing in show tents. It was around 1902 when she was first exposed to blues music after hearing a girl sing in a tent in Missouri.  She was so captivated by the performance that she began to incorporate it into her performances.

Pridgett met a singer, dancer and comedian named William "Pa" Rainey and they married February 2, 1904, when she was 18. From then, she performed as "Madame Gertrude Rainey", and later, "Ma Rainey".They sang and danced together in Black minstrel shows, and for several years toured with F.S. Wolcott's Rabbit Foot Minstrels. From 1914, the Raineys were billed as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. During the winters she lived in New Orleans where she met many blues musicians including Joe "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster. As Blues music increased in popularity and Ma Rainey would become very well known

From the time of her first recording in 1923 to five years later, Ma Rainey made over 100 recordings. Some of them include, Bo-weevil Blues (1923), Moonshine Blues (1923), See See Rider (1924), Black Bottom (1927), and Soon This Morning (1927).

She was known for her very powerful vocal abilities, energetic disposition, majestic phrasing, and a ‘moaning’ style of singing similar to that of folk tradition. Though her powerful voice and disposition are not captured on her recordings, the other characteristics are present, and most evident on her early recordings, Bo-weevil Blues and Moonshine Blues. Ma Rainey also recorded with Louis Armstrong in addition to touring and recording with the Georgia Jazz Band. Ma Rainey continued to tour until 1935 when she retired to her hometown.

Around this time, Rainey met Bessie Smith, a young blues singer who was also making a name for herself.  This was during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Though rarely identified as homosexual, same sex relationships were fluid during this time. Men and women were expected to marry. But in their circle, performers such as Bessie Smith " The Empress of the Blues", Ma Rainey " The Mother of the Blues", Alberta Hunter, Jackie "Mom" Mabley, Josephine Baker and Ethel Waters all cultivated a lesbian or bisexual image. For female jazz and blues singers, being attracted to other women was chic.

According to the book, Making Gay History by Eric Marcus, Ma Rainey several times was in trouble with the police for her lesbian behavior. In 1925, she was arrested for taking part in an orgy at home involving women in her chorus. Bessie Smith bailed her out of jail. Ma Rainey's album "Prove to Me Blues," a monologue about women who love women, showed reference of a women in appearance to Rainey, in hat, tie and jacket talking to a flapper. In the distance a policeman observes. The copy reads "What's all this? Scandal? To look at the words, the song goes: "Went out last night a crowd of my friends. They must 've been women, cause I don't like no men... They say I do it, ain't nobody caught me, They sure got to prove it to me..."

Towards the end of the 1920s, live vaudeville went into decline, being replaced by radio and recordings. Rainey's career was not immediately affected. She continued recording with Paramount and earned enough money touring to buy a bus with her name on. In 1928, she worked with Dorsey again and recording 20 songs, before Paramount finished her contract. Her style of blues was no longer considered fashionable by the label

In 1935 Rainey 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. She was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1983, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Ma Rainey died in Rome, Georgia in 1939.

No comments: