Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (1886-1939)
Styled as the "Mother of the Blues," Gertrude Pridgett Rainey, better known as "Ma" Rainey, was one of the most important of the early blues singers. In her thirty-five years of touring and recordings she made with Paramount, the Georgia native did much to establish the "classic" blues in American musical life.
She played a central role in connecting the less polished, male-dominated country blues and the smoother,
Rainey was born on April 26, 1886. She grew up in a poor family in Columbus, an important river port and a stop on
Ma Rainey was one of the first women to incorporate blues into minstrel and vaudeville stage shows, blending styles from country blues, early jazz, and her own personal musical idiom.
In December 1923 Rainey began a five-year association with Paramount, becoming one of the first women to record the blues professionally, eventually producing more than 100 recordings of her own compositions with some of the finest musicians of the day. Her early discs— Bo-weavil Blues (1923) and Moonshine Blues (1923)—soon spread her reputation outside the South. Louis Armstrong accompanied her in Jelly Bean Blues (1924), and later her Georgia Jazz Band included at different times Tommy Ladnier, Joe Smith, and Coleman Hawkins. One of the few times her flair for comedy comes through is in her widely popular Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1927). Although these recordings scarcely do her vocal style justice, they do give a sense of her raw, "moaning" style and her exquisite phrasing. Her songs and vocal style reveal her deep connection with the pain of jealousy, poverty, sexual abuse, and loneliness of sharecroppers and southern blacks.
Changing urban musical tastes began diminishing her appeal, and in 1928 Paramount dropped her, claiming that her "down-home material has gone out of fashion." The Great Depression further eroded her audiences, and she retired in 1933 to Columbus and Rome, where she managed two theaters she had bought with her earnings. She died of heart disease in 1939, at age fifty-three, and was buried in Porterdale Cemetery in Columbus.
Ma Rainey's death came just as her work began gaining serious attention among collectors and critics. She was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Blues Hall of Fame in 1983, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1992, and Georgia Women of Achievement in 1993. In 1994 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.
Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Pantheon, 1998).
Daphne D. Harrison, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988).
Sandra R. Lieb, Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981).
Derrrick Stewart-Baxter, Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers (New York: Stein and Day, 1970).
N. Lee Orr, Georgia State University
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