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
Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.
~Prove It On Me Blues, Ma Rainey, 1928
Gertrude Pridgett “Ma Rainey” (April 26, 1886 – December 22, 1939), the “Mother of the Blues” was the kind of powerful woman of which legends are spun.
- She performed professionally as early as 1900
- She kidnapped Bessie Smith, forcing her to sing the blues
- At a 1914 Louisiana tent show, the stage collapsed beneath her just as she sang “If you don’t b’lieve I’m sinkin’, look what a hole I’m in” (drummer Zutty Singleton)
(Only two of these are likely to be true. Smith and Rainey were undoubtedly close and though the tales of Rainey training Smith are likely an exaggeration, Smith was strongly influenced by Rainey’s style)
Despite the wildly unexpected success of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (1920), Ma Rainey was the first true female star of the blues. She was a singer, minstrel and vaudeville show performer, comedienne, songwriter, dancer, and recording artist. Ma was described as a “short, heavy, dark-skinned woman with luminous eyes, wild, wiry hair, and a large mouth filled with gold teeth.” She often lightened her face with greasepaint, powder and rouge so that she looked almost gold-coloured.
Rainey became a recording star for Paramount Records, a small company with limited resources, particularly when compared to Columbia who was producing Smith’s albums. Despite these limitations, Rainey recorded 92 songs for Paramount between 1923 and 1928. Unfortunately, Paramount went bankrupt in the 1930s resulting in Rainey’s records being unavailable until the late 1960s.
Rainey mixed folk blues with pop forms to become one of the earliest classic blues artists but she voluntarily stopped performing rather than change her style as it became ‘dated’. She was always most popular with Southerners who understood her style that was grounded in the rural, southern, Black tradition. Among the classic blues performers, Rainey was the least commercialized.
After her first appearance in the revue “Bunch of Blackberries” at age 14, Rainey started performing in tent shows. At 18, she married William “Pa” Rainey a dancer/singer/comedian and they became the performance team “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues” working in Black minstrel and tent shows. These Black minstrel shows provided steady employment and were considered more ‘authentic’ than white ones as they emphasized Black culture, but they still relied on the stereotypes, perceptions, expectations, and fantasies that were inherited from white shows.
Rainey’s rise in popularity paralleled the rise in popularity of the blues. She performed with many troupes including the Smarter Set, the Florida Cotton Blossoms, Shufflin’ Sam from Alabam’, and her most famous show the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. The “Foots” show included blues singers, jungle scenes, novelty acts, comedians, jugglers, and vaudeville. They travelled by railroad car and used a marching brass band to advertise their arrival in a new town. They played in a portable 80×110 ft canvas tent with wooden boards on a folding frame working as a stage and Coleman lanterns used as footlights. In this time before mics, singers had to have strong vocal projection. Those who needed megaphones were scorned.
The Foots stayed in the South in the country where the music was well received by blacks and whites. Rainey was the most renowned performer with Foots. She mixed blues, comedy, dancing, novelty and topical songs, and the latest paper “ballits” (city song sheets) accompanied by jug band, pianist or small jazz combo. (In the cities, the music was spread mainly by sheet music and performances in white vaudeville).
Rainey was significantly older than most of the other performers. Though she had been using the stage name Madame Gertrude Rainey which was well-suited to her elaborate dresses and jewels, the performers remembered her as “compassionate and maternal”, better-fitting her shortened name of “Ma”.
1923 was the year that Rainey went from Southern minstrel star to national recording artist. Her contract with Paramount brought her to Chicago to record 8 songs. Unfortunately, Paramount’s budget was rather small and many of her sides were produced with lesser technology. “Bad Luck Blues” was her first recording but “Moonshine Blues” the first to be released and promoted. Shortly thereafter, Paramount booked Rainey on a tour with the Theatre Owner’s Booking Agency (TOBA), a circuit of theatres in Southern and Midwestern cities geared to black vaudeville entertainment. This tour would lead to her collaboration with pianist Thomas A Dorsey. He found her “grand, gracious, and easy to talk with”. Thomas put together the Wildcats Jazz Band, the band with which Rainey made her Chicago debut at the Grand Theatre in April 1924.
We looked and felt like a million. Ma was hidden in a big-box like affair built like an old Victrola of long ago. This stood on the side of the stage. A girl would come out and put a big record on it. Then the band picked up the Moonshine Blues. Ma would sing a few bars inside the Victrola. Then she would open the door and step out into the spotlight with her glittering gown that weighed twenty pounds and wearing a necklace of five, ten and twenty dollar gold-pieces. The house went wild. It was like the show had started all over again. Ma had the audience in the palm of her hand. Her diamonds flashed like sparks of fire falling from her fingers. The fold-piece necklace lay like a golden armour covering her chest. They called her the lady with the golden throat…When Ma had sung her last number and the grand finale, we took seven [curtain] calls.
– Thomas A Dorsey
She clearly proved that she was far superior to any of her predecessors.
– Tony Langston, noted reviewer for the Defender newspaper
Rainey had a reputation for treating her musicians well but TOBA (aka “Tough on Black Artists”) tours were gruelling work for low pay with inadequate staff and by 1926, Dorsey was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown that would ultimately require two years to recover. By this time, Rainey had also been arrested twice, once for unknowingly purchasing stolen jewelry and once for hosting an ‘indecent’ party. Bessie Smith bailed her out the next morning.
By 1927, competition from radio and records and the arrival of talking motion pictures were beginning to contribute to the decline in popularity of vaudeville, TOBA, and classic blues. Many audiences began to consider it dated and crude, though rural tent shows were still popular. Although Rainey made 19 recordings for Paramount that year and continued to work hard touring the South, she was already starting to fall out of favour with Paramount who instead choose to feature Ida Cox in their holiday advertising. Despite these challenges, 1928 may have been Rainey’s best year as she was reunited with Dorsey and recorded 20 titles for Paramount before their new direction abruptly ended her recording career. On these records, she was accompanied by Dorsey, Tampa Red, Papa Charlie Jackson, and a jug band, choosing a very down-home sound in contrast from her earlier jazz band recordings. Though she finished the year with a month-long contract at Chicago’s Monogram Theatre that broke all attendance records, the Depression and the development (some would say dilution) of swing music with commercial influences by the 1930’s effectively ended Rainey’s career, though she temporarily returned to minstrelsy performing in east Texas oilfield towns.
“The blues ran out. It collapsed, seemingly, or the blues singers, they had nothing to do. I don’t know what happened to the blues, they seemed to drop it all at once, it just went down.
– Thomas A Dorsey
For Rainey, it was always about the blues. Over half her recordings are 12-bar Blues and another quarter are 12-bar mixed with popular song forms. She is the sole or joint composer of at least 40% of her recorded songs (22 sole, 16 joint) but this only represents a small fraction of her work. Where Rainey’s recordings were influenced by recording time limitations and censorship considerations, Rainey live performances attached comedic skits to her songs, giving them additional context and story that is now lost. Yet her recordings do provide a glimpse into the wide range of emotions her voice and acting skills could express:
Where classic blues generally had a narrower range of themes than early folk blues, Rainey covered more than just the love songs preferred by the record companies. Rainey’s blues explored the personal black experience: poverty, suffering, heartbreak, humour, fortitude, endurance, all with the lens of a woman’s experiences within the community as well as her humour-filled or cynical take on society’s view of her own behaviour. But her comedy was generally good-natured self-mockery about her looks and the contrast between her uninhibited behaviour and her more reserved companions. And while Rainey stayed away from sensitive topics including national affairs and racial relations, she wasn’t above sensationalizing her songs and filling them with suggestive lyrics to increase sales.
She can be tragic, her voice breaking with a sob in “Oh Papa Blues” and “Morning Hour Blues.” She can be disdainfully haughty, insulting her unfaithful man in “Titanic Man Blues,” or broadly comic, complaining about her aching feet in “Those Dogs of Mine.” She can be arch and cynical, amused at her own naiveté in “Trust No Man,” or tough and aggressive, talking frankly about lesbianism in “Prove It on Me Blues,” or distrusting all appearances in “Shave ‘Em Dry Blues.”
Many of Rainey’s songs use a vocal ‘call’ and instrumental ‘response’. In melody, chord progression, imagery, and accompaniment, she drew from folk blues. Her songs were often a public expression of private pain. You can often find the song title present in the final line of the song. Where early folk blues was primarily sung by male laborers and punctuated by falsetto, whoops, shouts, and hollers, classic blues singers were professional women performers with multiple talents and extensive costuming. Rainey with her rough, unsophisticated voice, use of the moan which had evolved from Southern field hollers, and tendency to bring some down-home sound to songs made Rainey the least commercialized of the Classic Blues singers, and uniquely placed between the two styles.
Ma Rainey was a tremendous figure. She wouldn’t have to sing any words; she would moan, and the audience would moan with her. She had them in the palm of her hand. I heard Bessie Smith also, but Ma Rainey was the greatest mistress of an audience. Bessie was the greater blues singer, but Ma really knew these people; she was a person of the folk; she was very simple and direct.
– Sterling Brown, professor, folklorist, poet and literary critic
Ethel Waters – Oh Daddy, 1921
Ma Rainey – Oh Papa Blues, 1927
“Oh Papa Blues” was first recorded by Ethel Waters as “Oh Daddy” in 1921. The contrast in these recordings demonstrates the more commercialized ‘pop blues’ sound of Waters and Rainey’s blues feeling. Waters sings with precise diction, high pitch, pure tone and syncopation played against a steady 4/4 beat. Rainey is imprecise, rough-toned, sings the melody in a lower key and allows her voice to break on the ‘Oh’. Along with her band, Rainey emphasizes the off-beats, leading to high-spirited, blues-flavoured riffs. Rainey also simplifies the lyrics and the imagery, using more common vernacular phrasing. Rainey changes:
- “And if you care for me/You will listen to my plea” to “I’m almost goin’ insane/I’m forever tryin’ to call his name”
- “All my little money that I gave to you” to “All my money, I give you”
- “Daddy, daddy, you won’t have no mama at all” to “Papa, papa, you ain’t got no mama now”
When her sister died, Ma officially retired from performing and she returned to Georgia to live in the house she had built for the family and to manage the two theatres she acquired with her earnings: the Lyric and the Airdome. Her mother died later that same year. At only 53, Rainey died of heart disease. She was buried in her family plot in Colombus, Georgia. Her death certificate lists her occupation as “housekeeping”.
To her audiences, both rural and urban, Rainey had reaffirmed the Southern black culture as positive, resilient, and life-affirming even in the midst of a major migration to the northern cities. Throughout her career, she had rejected society’s expectations, she had rejected the white standards of beauty, and she had rejected the more refined sounds of her peers. And in doing so, the Mother of the Blues won their hearts.
They said she was the ugliest woman in show business. But Ma Rainey didn’t care, because she pulled in the crowds.
– Alberta Hunter
Mo’Nique on Ma Rainey from “Bessie”, 2015
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