RAINEY, MA (Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett,Gertrude Rainey,Madame Rainey) (1886–1939) Singer
Hailed as the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett on April 26, 1886. Raised in Columbus, Georgia, she began her career at 14 when she sang in a local talent show. She already had begun working in tent shows, touring entertainments for southern black audiences, when she married fellow performer William Rainey in 1904. Together they began appearing in tent and minstrel shows, vaudeville houses, and honky-tonks, billed as “Ma and Pa Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.” In time, she began performing on her own as “Madame Rainey,” though her fans still referred to her by the more intimate “Ma.”
By accounts of those who saw her, Rainey was a magnetic performer. A large woman whose features were often described as homely, she complemented her love of the theatrical with fiamboyant costumes. She often wore fiashy beaded dresses and earrings fashioned from gold dollar coins. Ma Rainey performed traditional folk songs, favorite vaudeville tunes, and novelty ditties, but she was best known for singing the blues. Rainey’s blues told stories of love, sex, infidelity, drunkenness, depression, revenge, superstition, and murder—subjects familiar to her audiences. Later known as classic blues, Rainey’s songs described the difficult day-to-day experiences of rural southern blacks living in poverty in the days of lynchings and resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
Fitting with the lyrics she sang, Rainey’s style was earthy, land her voice was often harsh. Her rough country blues would help give birth to the more polished, urban interpretation popularized by BESSIE SMITH, whom Rainey knew and greatly infiuenced. Though a favorite on the southern circuit, Rainey was largely unknown in the North until 1923. She then traveled to Chicago to make a series of recordings for Paramount, which marketed them to African Americans as “race records.” Over the next five years, Rainey recorded 92 songs, only a small portion of her repertoire. The most famous of these include “Bo-weevil Blues,” “Those All Night Long Blues,” and the risqué “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Because of the primitive equipment used, these records hardly captured the dynamism of her live performances. Nevertheless, they succeeded in greatly expanding her audience and encouraging record companies to record other, younger blues artists.
Soon, however, Rainey’s performing career was on the wane. The Great Depression and competition from radio hit the vaudeville and minstrel circuit hard. Finding bookings fewer and farther between, Rainey returned to Columbus, Georgia, in 1935, to live in the house she had bought for her family. She spent her last years operating two theaters she owned in the nearby city of Rome. On December 22, 1939, Ma Rainey died in her hometown of a heart attack. She is now remembered as the first woman to make a living from singing the blues.
Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.
Lieb, Sandra R. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.
Stewart-Baxter, Derrick. Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers. New York: Stein and Day, 1970
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Ma Rainey: The Complete Recorded Works. Vols. 1 to 5. Document, CD, 1998.