Ma Rainey’s Blues Power

Illuminating the legend of the Mother of the Blues — with help from some of contemporary blues’ reigning queens.

by
Ma Rainey c. 1923. Credit: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images.

“They don’t care nothin’ about me,” says Ma Rainey, as portrayed by Viola Davis, in the Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that. And they gonna treat me like I wanna be treated, no matter how much it hurt ’em.”

More than any others, these lines encapsulate Rainey’s character in the film (and the August Wilson play from which it was adapted). And while the script amply demonstrates Rainey’s ability and readiness to command such respect, it puts less emphasis on what she had done to earn it.

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was known as “The Mother of the Blues,” a monumental figure who made possible the genre’s entry into popular music. She even claimed to have given the blues its name. What she undoubtedly did was to create a style of performance — brazen, tough, funny and unabashedly carnal — that was the gold standard of its time and empowered female vocalists to become the dominant figures in the early blues.

Rainey also wrote her own material and interpreted traditional songs with such panache that her renditions became the most prominent. In the process, she garnered publishing credits and reached a level of stardom that was unprecedented for a Black woman, perhaps for any Black entertainer.

“The movie is brilliant — the play is too — but it really only portrayed a small part of just how important Ma Rainey was,” says Shemekia Copeland, one of contemporary blues’ most renowned singers. “She did so many incredible things that were really unheard of at that time. And everybody wanted to be like her. They saw all that she had done and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to do this.’”

“The Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith, though arguably the better known of the two, was Rainey’s protégé. Mamie Smith, whose 1920 “Crazy Blues” is often credited as the genre’s first recording, mimics Rainey’s phrasing on the song. Her other disciples are legion … and they aren’t limited to early blues. Her bravado, self-possession and earthiness echo throughout all American music, touching artists from Bonnie Raitt to Madonna to Cardi B and Lizzo.

“Ma Rainey did everything that I wanted to do,” says singer Francine Reed, a frequent collaborator with Lyle Lovett and a solo performer in her own right. “I always wish I could have lived sooner and been there with the greats like her. I think what she did was incredibly bold and, for lack of a better word, delicious.”

Ma Rainey and her Georgia Jazz Band c. 1924-25, with pianist and gospel icon Thomas A. Dorsey at right.
Credit: JP Jazz Archive/Redferns.

That she was named Gertrude Pridgett at birth, and born to Thomas and Ella Allen Pridgett, is just about all we know for certain about Rainey’s origins. Most sources, including her gravestone, pin her origin to Columbus, Georgia, on April 26, 1886. A 1900 census record locates her in Columbus, but lists her birthdate as 1882, in Alabama.

Whatever the case, by the time of that 1900 register her father was dead, and teenage Gertrude was already singing. She had first performed publicly at a local talent show in Columbus, soon moving on to tour the “black vaudeville” circuit, performing around the country, mostly in tents. She sang popular and cabaret songs as well as minstrel-show tunes.

According to an interview she gave to the musicologist and composer John Work, Rainey first heard what we now know as the blues while on tour in Missouri in 1902. “She first discovered this new kind of music when a girl came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the man who left her,” Work wrote. “The song was so strange and poignant that it attracted much attention. Ma Rainey became so interested in it that she learned the song from the visitor and used it soon afterward…”

Asked what this music was, Rainey said that she replied, off the cuff, “It’s the blues.”

That last claim is probably self-serving mythology. Yet it’s no myth that Rainey transformed the folk song she heard that day, and the other blues songs she absorbed, into popular entertainment. She adapted them not just to her robust contralto singing voice but to a theatrical context as well, embellishing them with humor, broad body movements and no small helping of raunch.

“Remember that Ma was coming right out of vaudeville,” says Catherine Russell, a singer lauded for her classic blues and jazz repertoire, including Rainey’s songs. “She wasn’t making recordings; the record companies didn’t think Black people would buy records. So she wasn’t just singing songs, she was performing them. She would dance, shake her hips and make the songs funny. There was a lot of humor in them, because the reactions of the live audience really fed into the writing and the expression of these artists.”

In 1904 she married fellow trouper Will “Pa” Rainey. He gave her a nickname to match his and together they performed as Ma and Pa Rainey. They joined the Rabbit’s Foot Company, one of America’s most popular Black minstrel troupes, in 1906, remaining with it for a decade. It was during that time that blues was gaining a solid national foothold: Composer W.C. Handy had scored the genre’s first pop hits, including his “St. Louis Blues” published in 1914. The Raineys accommodated the rising demand, giving more and more of their act over to the blues; by 1914 they were billing themselves as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.” (Among the other members of Rabbit’s Foot was a chorus girl named Bessie Smith, whom Rainey taught to sing the blues.)

Rainey left both Pa and Rabbit’s Foot in 1916 and formed her own troupe, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set. Rainey was now a star — packing tent shows across the South before conquering Black theaters nationwide in the ’20s. She also came to attract white audiences, and made money that even white performers only dreamt of. And she flaunted it. Her image included enormous horsehair wigs, headdresses, beaded satin gowns, gold teeth and opulent jewelry, including necklaces made of pearls or gold coins. (Among her nicknames was “The Gold-Neck Woman of the Blues.”)

In modern terms, Rainey was a diva. And she’d earned it.

It seems unjust that the groundbreaking Rainey wasn’t the first blues singer to make a record. In a practical sense, though, it didn’t much matter. Rainey was already a celebrity and a lucrative attraction when Mamie Smith made “Crazy Blues” in 1920; she hardly needed the exposure. Even so, Paramount Records finally signed her in 1923. Early releases like “Bo-Weavil Blues” were instant hits in the “race records” market, and Rainey became one of the label’s major successes.

Her recording career was short, just five years, but within that narrow window Rainey recorded more than 90 sides. At the time, the boundary separating blues and jazz was fluid and permeable, and Rainey’s records included the likes of Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Fletcher Henderson and Coleman Hawkins, as well as blues banjoist Papa Charlie Jackson and guitar-piano duo Tampa Red and Georgia Tom. (The lattermost of these players was also known as Thomas A. Dorsey, who became Rainey’s musical director before ascending to be among the most successful gospel musicians in history.)

Nor did Rainey only record songs using blues forms. There were rags, early jazz tunes and minstrel-show comedy numbers. (Even many of Rainey’s songs called blues weren’t technically blues; they likely took the name purely for marketing purposes.) One of these was “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” obviously the centerpiece of the play and recent film (whose score was composed by Branford Marsalis), and one of Rainey’s enduring songs. Named for a popular dance, the 1927 record doesn’t need to be a strict blues to showcase many of Rainey’s strengths: her full, shouting voice; her confidence and outsize personality; her use of humor and innuendo (“All the boys in the neighborhood, they say your black bottom is really good”).

Still, the blues was her calling card, and most of her songs, 12 bars or not, tended in their lyrics toward what would become classic blues themes. “The subject will be ‘My man done me wrong,’ or ‘my man left me,’ or for the more positive spin, ‘how much I love my man,’” Russell says. But, she stresses, Rainey didn’t approach these ideas from a position of weakness. “When she sings those songs, and when I sing them today, we’re singing in strength. We’re not kowtowing to the man, we’re not subservient to the man, that type of thing. We are still fully ourselves and strong, but we can still be vulnerable and depend on a man. So, the stories of those songs, they kind of bring out the defiance but also the dependence.”

Rainey, however, didn’t necessarily sing about men. She was bisexual — one piece of blues lore says that she was romantically involved with Bessie Smith — which remained taboo despite the sexual revolution of the Roaring ’20s. (On at least one occasion, Rainey was jailed after police found her trysting with one, or possibly more than one, of her troupe’s female dancers.) Yet she made no secret of it. Dussie Mae, Rainey’s girlfriend in the movie, is imaginary, but the words to 1928’s “Prove It on Me Blues” are not:

I went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
It must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan,
Talk to the gals just like any old man.

Nobody but Ma Rainey could have written them, and, indeed, the very fact of Rainey’s writing her own songs was trailblazing. The 1910s and ’20s were within the era of the professional songwriter, when songs were written by employees of music publishers and hits were measured by sheet-music sales. Some performers wrote their own material, of course — Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton, both Rainey’s contemporaries, are classic examples. But for a woman to write popular songs — a Black woman at that — was exceedingly rare. Yet songs that bear her credit not only became hits but have endured as standards. Rainey’s music, like Rainey herself, was decades before its time.

Ma Rainey’s performing career didn’t end in 1928 with her recording career. She continued on the road, finding success even after the onset of the Great Depression (“Ma Rainey’s Show Packing Them In,” reads a Chicago Defender headline from March 1930). She retired to Columbus in 1935, where she died four years later of a heart attack, on Dec. 22, 1939.

Rainey’s influence, in sound, repertoire and most importantly spirit, can be heard in brilliant current blues, jazz and Americana singers like Catherine Russell, Shemekia Copeland and Francine Reed (from left). Credits, from left: Al Pereira/Getty Images; James Fraher/Redferns; Chris McKay/Getty Images for the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

In 1984, Rainey became the subject of August Wilson’s award-winning play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Last December, 81 years almost to the day after her death, the Netflix film based on the play premiered to runaway acclaim and success. Culturally, Rainey’s legacy is secure.

So is her musical legacy, not least because of her songwriting. However, as Russell points out, the style of performing that Rainey pioneered is at least as important as the repertoire. “I can feel her whole life in every song that she sings, in her phrasing,” she says. “I can feel the pain and the strength that she has to conjure up to sing these songs. [That kind of expression] absolutely became part of the tradition. You can hear the influence on Bessie Smith, but also on Pearl Bailey, for example — you can say that she came right out of that tradition and carried it on. Louis Armstrong. Alberta Hunter. Ruth Brown.” Not to mention Russell herself.

Ditto Shemekia Copeland, a female blues singer long after such women were the genre’s premier ambassadors. “I get to do what I do because of them,” she says. “When it went electric, blues music became more about guitar and instrumentalists. But before, it was women and singers, and the whole theatrical, entertainment aspect of it. They were true entertainers. It’s really a shame that went away once people plugged in.”

Her influence transcends female singers, too. John Minnock, a gay jazz and cabaret singer in New York, is fascinated by Rainey as an early example of a queer icon. “There hasn’t been a whole lot of LGBTQ representation in jazz and blues music,” he says. “And it’s so interesting to see something historical, almost like a bookend: Here’s the beginning and the first instance of LGBTQ representation in jazz and blues; fast forward 100 years and that’s what we do.” Though he’s careful with them, Minnock has incorporated some of Rainey’s blues into his cabaret show. “The songs about the toils of life, the trials of being Black in America, I try and stay away from that. It’s cultural misappropriation, and also, you lose some of the connectivity to the audience if you try to pull off something that’s just not part of your background. But ‘my man done me wrong,’ or ‘my man’s sleeping around’? That really suits the gay community well.”

More than anything, though, it’s Rainey’s general attitude — the boldness and the confidence in particular — that still inspires. “I really loved that sass that singers like Ma Rainey had,” Copeland says. “That confidence and that whole way they carried themselves.”

“I love that raunch — that drag-your-stuff-in-the-dirt blues, you know?” says Francine Reed. “Dipping down and wearing crazy, wild clothes. She wasn’t afraid to do that. There was an era in my life where I guess I did do that.” She laughs. “Lucky me!”

“I listen to her and it’s just very deep for me,” Russell says. “Ma Rainey is ‘No. This is me, take it or leave it; I’m gonna sing these blues and I’m gonna tell you these stories and it’s gonna be dark and it’s gonna be deep.’ And I am so excited to see this artist coming back into the discussion. We can all really get into the style and the delivery of her music so that we can keep it alive.”

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