Ma Rainey: The Life and Music of “The Mother of the Blues”

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    Bessie Smith may have been the early blues’ greatest singer, but Ma Rainey was its greatest performer. This intense, warm woman was a living link between minstrelsy, the earliest blues, and vaudeville. Ma’s deep, almost-vibratoless contralto sounded rough and unsophisticated compared to other commercial blueswomen, but she projected a great depth of feeling and was adored by audiences.

    Her Paramount 78s sold tremendously well, especially in the rural South, where she had long captivated the hearts of the rugged workers of fields, levee camps, and lumber yards with beautifully sung lyrics like:

    “Grand opera and parlor junk,
    I’ll tell the world that it’s all bunk,
    That’s the kind of stuff I shun,
    Let’s get dirty and have some fun”

    One of five children of Thomas and Ella Allen Pridgett, Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia, on April 26, 1886. She was baptized into the First African Baptist Church. According to her brother, Thomas Jr., “at a very early age her talent as a singer was very noticeable.” When Gertrude was ten, her father passed away and her mother took a job with the Central Railway of Georgia. Around 1900 she made her singing debut with the Bunch of Blackberries revue at the Springer Opera House. Soon afterwards, she joined a tent show.

    During an interview with musicologist John Work and poet Sterling Brown at Nashville’s Douglass Hotel during the early 1930s, Ma claimed that she heard blues for the first time around 1902, when she played a small Missouri town. “She tells of a girl from the town,” Work wrote in American Negro Songs, 1940, “who came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the ‘man’ who had left her. 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 in her act as an encore. The song elicited such response from the audience that it won a special place in her act.” Ma explained to Work that a 1905 fire had destroyed clippings describing her singing these strange songs and that although they were not yet called blues, she reported that she had often heard similar songs as she travelled the South.

    Ma and Pa Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues

    Early in 1904, Will “Pa” Rainey, a singer, dancer, and comedian, was smitten by Gertrude’s charms. She accepted his proposal, and became “Ma” to his Pa. The couple hit the road, performing song-and-dance routines for a variety of black minstrel troupes that worked under tents. As her fame spread, “Madame Gertrude Rainey” became a headliner with the Smarter Set, the Florida Cotton Blossoms, Shufflin’ Sam From Alabam’, and the famous Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Her biggest numbers with the Rabbit Foots were “Florida Blues,” “Kansas City Blues,” and “Jelly Roll Blues.” Accompanied by a jug band, jazz combo, or pianist, Ma sang pop and novelty numbers as well, and she was renowned for her dancing and comedy. 

    “She was always a great star, from way back there about 1912,” remembered Thomas Dorsey in Living Blues magazine. Dorsey first saw Ma and Pa Rainey when he was a popcorn boy at Atlanta’s 81 Theater. Around this period, a young chorus girl named Bessie Smith joined the troupe. It’s unknown whether Ma gave Bessie singing lessons, but Bessie clearly emulated the older singer. From 1914 to ’16 Ma and Pa traveled with Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza, billed as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.” When their days of assassinatin’ together ended, Ma Rainey carried on as a single woman.

    By 1917 Ma was packing them in. The fact that her shows were integrated – half the tent reserved for whites, half for blacks – testifies to her drawing powers in the South. When whites outnumbered blacks – not an uncommon occurrence, according to witnesses – the overflow sat peacefully in the black section. The two-hour show typically opened with three jazzy numbers by the band. Then, with a crescendo and flash of lights, the curtains opened on a line of flashy chorus girls showing knees and laced-up high heels. Ma employed chorus boys too, who were almost invariably “light brownskins” or “yellows.” “I don’t care how good a real dark-skinned person could do something,” old-time musician Clyde Bernhardt explained to author Sandra Lieb, “they just couldn’t get the credit for it from the colored person like a brown-skinned or light-brown-skinned or yellow person would. Colored people have always been more prejudiced than white people.” Next up was a hilarious skit – one of them, for instance, involving trained chickens, a coop, a thief, and a shotgun-toting “brownskin” made up to look like a bearded cracker. After that, a soubrette sang a fast dance number such as “Ballin’ the Jack,” joined by the chorus boys and girls.

    After more comedy routines, Ma Rainey would make her entrance. Her voice big and powerful, she’d sing “Walkin’ the Dog,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” “Tishimingo Blues,” “Jelly Roll Blues,” “Memphis Blues,” “Yellow Dog Blues,” “Alcoholic Blues,” and her favorite encore, “See See Rider Blues.” She’d dance and joke about craving pigmeat (i.e., young men). Then the whole troupe participated in the grand finale. Afterwards, they’d pack everything into a train car and move on. In the Jim Crow country, the performers carried their own food, since blacks weren’t permitted in dining cars, and members of the troupe had to sleep on the train or with black families along the route.
    Ma traveled with a choreographer, and while she might scold her girls for not lifting their legs high enough during rehearsal, she seldom lost her temper and was never violent. Offstage, she acted more like a religious person than a celebrity, never cursing and giving generously to churches and charities. Her employees were not permitted to drink alcohol during the evening of the show.

    But the squat, 5’6” singer was no motherly Aunt Jemima. A fringe of wiry hair peaking out from under a glittering beaded headband, she was famous for her gold teeth, feathers boas and plumes, glittering diamonds, necklace of gold coins, and fondness for Coca Cola. “She wasn’t a good lookin’ woman,” claimed Gatemouth Moore, who toured with her during his childhood. “I won’t call her ugly, but what a terrible face! And Ma Rainey was short and stumpy and very dark. But to me, she was mama.” Alberta Hunter called her “the ugliest woman in the business.” Onstage, though, Ma wowed audiences with her glamorous satin gowns, high heels, false eyelashes, and gold complexion (the result of greasepaint, powder, rouge, and judicious amber stage lighting). As troupers used to say, “You can take a little powder, take a little paint, and make you look like what you ain’t.”

    In December 1923, when she made the leap from minstrel star to recording artist, 38-year-old Ma Rainey was already considered an old-timer. Mayo “Ink” Williams saw her perform at Chicago’s Monogram Theater and decided to take a chance. Rainey quickly proved her worth: Her initial 78s, cut with Lovie Austin and Her Blues Serenaders, sold so well that Ma is sometimes cited as having saved the Paramount 12000 race series during its early years. Beautifully punctuated by Tommy Ladnier’s swinging cornet and Jimmy Bryant’s winsome, under-recorded clarinet, her first selection was Austin’s “Bad Luck Blues.” Ma’s next cut, her own “Bo-Weavil Blues,” struck a resonant chord among Southern-born blacks who’d moved to the North:

    “I’m a lone bo-weavil, been out a good long time,
    I’m a lone bo-weavil, been out a good long time,
    I’m gonna sing this blues to ease a bo-weavil lonesome mind

    “I don’t want no man to put no sugar in my tea,
    I don’t want no man to put no sugar in my tea,
    Some of them’s so evil, I’m afraid they might poison me”

    Five months later, Bessie Smith cut a reverent cover of “Bo-Weavil Blues.”

    Ma composed or collaborated on at least a third of the 92 songs she recorded for Paramount Records. Her storytelling lyrics often presented an unflinching view of life from the perspective of a woman in turmoil. Usually set to a 12-bar, AAB pattern, her most striking lyrics dealt with abandonment by her man, prostitution, lesbianism, sado-masochism, drunkenness, superstition, and murder. Unable to read or write, Ma reportedly showed up at sessions with drawings she’d made to remind her of lyrics. Some of her best-known songs – “Bo-Weavil Blues” and “See See Rider Blues” among them – married elements of blues and pop.

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn aggressive ad campaigns to promote her records, Ma’s label proclaimed her “The Songbird of the South,” “The Gold-Necked Woman of the Blues,” “The Paramount Wildcat,” and “The Mother of the Blues.” A few months after her first 78s went on sale, Paramount held a contest offering valuable prizes to whoever could come up with the best name for “Ma Rainey’s Mystery Record” (the winning title was the song’s first line, “Lawd, I’m Down Wid de Blues”). Like her labelmate Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma was celebrated with a special souvenir record label bearing her image, a forerunner of the picture disc album of the 1970s and modern imprinted CDs.
    Ink Williams introduced Ma Rainey to Thomas Dorsey, a skilled piano player and blues composer who’d later write “Precious Lord” and become the beloved “The Father of Gospel Music.” Dorsey found her “grand, gracious, and easy to talk with,” and agreed to direct her touring group, the Wildcats Jazz Band. At band’s first performance, at Chicago’s Grand Theater in April ’24, the curtain opened to reveal a large prop Victrola phonograph in the center of the stage. A girl put a big record on it, the band kicked off “Moonshine Blues,” and Ma’s voice resounded from within the box. After singing a few bars, Ma opened a door and stepped into the spotlight, her necklace of gold coins and diamond-studded fingers glistening in the stage lights. The crowd went wild, calling Ma back for seven curtain calls. “She clearly proved that she was far superior to any of her predecessors,” proclaimed the next issue of Chicago Defender, the nation’s leading black newspaper.
    “Ma had the audience in the palm of her hand,” Dorsey remembered in Living Blues. “I travelled with her almost four years. She was a natural drawing card.” When Dorsey got married, Ma helped keep the couple together by hiring his bride as a wardrobe girl. According to Dorsey, Ma’s touring show featured acts such as one-man-band Stovepipe Johnson, tap dancer Jack Wiggins, and Dick & Dick, who specialized in singing, dancing and joking. But Ma did most of the blues singing: “She’d have these prima donnas,” Dorsey recalled, “but they didn’t sing blues on her shows. See, they’d sing something else, like hot pop or somethin’ like that. She was the only blues performer. Naturally, you wouldn’t put another blues singer on your show – may out-sing you.
    “I wrote quite a few of her songs. There were several of ’em we wrote together; I can’t remember ’em all, only those that kinda made a hit. ‘Stormy Sea Blues,’ that was a real hit. Fact, she opened with that sometimes. She’d sing it and then do whatever you’d do in a storm. The storm start to raging, you try to run here and run there and get away. You become excited. Oh yeah, she had a good act there. That was one of the best numbers on the show for a long time. We’d have effects, like lightnin’ effects the stage manager gave us. We carried two or three of our own drops, to change the scenery. She had her own drop with ‘Paramount Records’ and a picture of the label painted on. We carried about four trunks of scenery, drops, and things you could fold up there.” In some shows, Ma danced a rowdy Charleston with Broadway Fred Walker. When Ma shimmied, she reportedly shook “like jelly on a plate,” and when she spun around and slapped her ample behind, she helped start a daring dance craze called the Black Bottom.

    Ma Rainey’s Wildcats Jazz Band, with Thomas Dorsey on piano

    Unlike contemporaries such as Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, and Mamie Smith, Ma often showcased a roots Southern sound on her records. Listeners could almost smell the canvas and minstrel greasepaint in 1924’s “Lost Wandering Blues,” cut with Miles Pruitt on banjo and his twin brother Milas on 6-string guitar. The AA part of one of its verses would resurface in Blind Lemon Jefferson’s best-known song, which, in turn, was covered by Carl Perkins and the Beatles:

    “I’m standin’ here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes?
    Lord, I’m standin’ here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes?
    I got a trunk too big to be botherin’ with on the road”

    Later that summer, Miles Pruitt provided down-home 12-string guitar on her eight-bar song “Shave ’Em Dry Blues.” In the years to follow, Ma would also cut rural-sounding records with accompaniment from Blind Blake, Papa Charlie Jackson, jug bands, and the piano-guitar team of Georgia Tom Dorsey and Tampa Red.

    The majority of Ma’s records, though, featured jazz ensembles, some quite extraordinary. During October 1924, for instance, she journeyed to New York City and cut several superb sides credited to Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Jazz Band. Her classic “Jealous Hearted Blues” featured pianist Fletcher Henderson, banjoist Charlie Dixon, trombonist Charlie Green, Howard Scott on cornet, and Don Redman on clarinet. The following day, Louis Armstrong and Buster Bailey replaced Scott and Redman, playing sublimely on three sides. Buster’s clarinet laughed and wept to coincide with Ma’s lyrics in “Jelly Bean Blues,” and “Countin’ the Blues” captured a textbook example of Louis’ sassy wah-wah muting. Their winsome accompaniment helped transform the traditional, murder-threatening “See See Rider Blues” into a blues masterpiece that would also inspire numerous covers:

    “See, see rider, see what you done done, Lord, Lord, Lord,
    Made me love you, now your gal done come,
    You made me love you, now your gal done come”

    Louis Armstrong in particular was impressed by Ma Rainey. Thomas Fulbright, a traveling actor who saw them both perform, recalled, “His facial expressions, his singing, his very stage presence were all vivid reminders of Ma. He sounds like her, and when he opens his mouth and stretches his lips across his teeth in a certain way, he even looks like her.”

    Ma Rainey did most of her recording in Chicago, where she maintained an apartment in the old Angelus Building on the corner of 35th and Wabash. Between sessions, she’d play the Theater Owners’ Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) black vaudeville circuit, headlining a revue. A copy of her itinerary on file at the University of Mississippi’s Blues Archive suggests that she was typically booked for a week at each venue. In November ’24, for instance, she worked Pittsburgh’s Star Theater, Cleveland’s Grand Central Theater, Columbus’ Dunbar Theater, and Cincinnati’s Roosevelt Theater. Most of her bookings between 1924 and ’29, though, were for Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Louisiana, and the Carolinas.

    During the good years Ma traveled in her own railroad car and was addressed as Madame Rainey. “Ma was the greatest,” Dorsey insisted. “She was very generous and kind. She paid you your money; she didn’t try to cheat you or pass you by. She was unselfish and always trying to help other performers. She didn’t worry about whether they’d become competition. Ma called everybody ‘sugar,’ ‘honey,’ and ‘baby’ – even white folks. People of both races loved her. She used to hold what she called ‘white folks night,’ and white people would overflow wherever she played. She was the biggest star of her time. There’ll never be another black woman like Ma Rainey.” By 1927, Ma was successful enough to buy a Mack bus with her name emblazoned on the side.

    Life on the road with Ma had its lighter moments, as Dorsey described: “Went down to Columbus, Georgia, to play the theater there with Ma Rainey. Put us on a big truck and carried us all around the town ballyhooin’. And couldn’t nothin’ play but the wind instruments and the drum; couldn’t put no piano up there. Just to attract the attention – yeah, the old ballyhoo, we called it. We done that many times. We were down in South Carolina, and we got out of the town. On the way to the next settlement, on the side of the road was cattle – lotta cows and things out in the pasture. Of course, this impressed me. And the cows were standing in groups, huddles, or whatever you want to call it. And we said, ‘Let’s stop this truck. Let’s play for the cows and see them run.’ And we started cuttin’ that jazz loose there. Cows didn’t move. Them cows walked up to the fence and listened to us play! Didn’t a cow run. I said, ‘Well, there must be something in the music.’”

    In 1927 Ma recorded new versions of her past hits “Bo-Weavil Blues” and “Moonshine Blues.” She also recorded several songs littered with images of domestic violence, betrayal, and murder. The character in “Cell Bound Blues,” of instance, finds herself in a jailhouse as she sings of pulling a gun on her man and asking witnesses to hold him back: “When I did that. he hit me cross my head / First shot I fired, my man fell dead.” Guitar ace Tampa Red’s bittersweet bottleneck lines made the violent, erotic images of 1928’s “Sweet Rough Man” all the more harrowing:

    “I woke up this mornin’, my head was sore as a boil,
    I woke up this mornin’, my head was sore as a boil,
    My man beat me last night with five feet of copper coil

    “He keeps my lips split, my eyes as black as jet,
    He keeps my lips split, my eyes as black as jet,
    But the way he love me makes me soon forget”

    Ma Rainey was equally unflinching when it came to writing about sexual themes. “Sissy Blues,” for instance, addressed bisexuality with the memorable lines: “My man’s got a sissy, his name is ‘Miss Kate’ / He shook that thing like jelly on a plate.” The term “jelly roll” was a long-standing euphemism for a sexual organ – in this case, a transvestite’s. In the next verse, Ma laments, “a sissy shook that thing and took my man from home.”

    She portrayed a rebellious hooker in “Hustlin’ Blues,” which stomped along to a countrified arrangement of banjo, washboard, jug, horn, and piano:

    “It’s rainin’ out here and tricks ain’t walkin’ tonight,
    It’s rainin’ out here and tricks ain’t walkin’ tonight,
    I’m going home, I know I’ve got to fight

    “If you hit me tonight, let me tell you what I’m going to do,
    If you hit me tonight, let me tell you what I’m going to do,
    I’m gonna take you to court and tell the judge on you”

    Ma Rainey’s “Prove It on Me Blues” provided a fairly unveiled celebration of lesbianism: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends / They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.” Paramount’s ad for the 78 depicted a heavyset Ma Rainey dressed in a man’s fedora and three-piece suit, flirting with a couple of slender, feminine babes while a cop watches suspiciously from across the street. There is evidence that Ma, like Bessie Smith, enjoyed women from time to time.

    Ma and her Paramount Flappers made a bus tour of the Midwest and South during 1928, earning rave reviews from the Chicago Defender’s Kansas City critic for Fred Walker’s hoofing, William McKelvie’s “eccentric dancing,” Ma’s joyous singing and “upteenth costume changes,” and even for “little Emma Smith, the girl with the diamond tooth.” Upon their return to Chicago, Ma and her Paramount Flappers broke attendance records with its month-long engagement at the Monogram Theater.

    Ma’s been accused of producing her most countrified 78s during 1928, her last year of sessions, but her ten sides with Georgia Tom Dorsey and Tampa Red sound citified to me. Holding his metal-bodied National guitar close to the recording source during “Black Eye Blues,” “Blame It on The Blues,” “Sleep Talking Blues,” Tampa achieved a smooth-sustaining bottleneck tone very similar to an electric guitar’s at low amplification. At this June session, Tampa approached Georgia Tom with the idea of recording a song of their own, “It’s Tight Like That.” The marriage of Tampa’s sly lyrics and bottlenecking with Dorsey’s rollicking piano arrangement seemed irresistibly erotic, and the 78 became a runaway hit for Vocalion. Ma later sang the tune in her own shows.

    Ma Rainey greets a fan.

    During October 1928, Ma cut the first of a pair of minstrel-style duets with Papa Charlie Jackson. Derived from Victoria Spivey’s popular “T.B. Blues,” “Ma and Pa Poorhouse Blues” began with a humorous exchange in which we learn Papa Charlie had to pawn his big banjo and somebody stole Ma’s bus. Learning they’re both broke, the singers decide to go to the poorhouse together. In December, Ma made her last record, playing a man-hungry woman to Papa Charlie’s interested “big-kid man” in “Big Feeling Blues.” Soon afterwards, Paramount canceled her contract.

    By then, sighed one Paramount exec, Ma Rainey’s “down-home material had gone out of fashion,” and it was thought she was too set in her ways to change. Young, sharp, jazzy blacks found her too country-sounding, male singers and swing music were now dominating the marketplace, and vaudeville in general was rapidly falling out of vogue. Reeling from fierce competition from talkies and the overall centralization of the entertainment industry, the T.O.B.A. had had its worst year on record in ’27, and its Chicago office closed the following year.

    Ma Rainey worked the ailing T.O.B.A. and tent show circuits during the spring of 1929, taking her Paramount Flappers to Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, and Tennessee. In April, the outfit was forced to hook up with the C.A. Wortham Circus. In May, Ma’s producer and seven cast members walked out, citing non-payment of wages, an event that surely grieved Ma, given her reputation for generosity. Things worsened as the year dragged on. Ma toured Michigan with the Wortham circus during the summer and joined the Sugarfoot Green tent show that fall, but by December she was back to playing in a minstrel comedy called The Arkansas Swift Foot. When this show fell apart on the road in 1930, Ma joined the stumbling Bandanna Babes. A headline in a 1930 issue of the Chicago Defender said it all: “Hundreds of Performers Seek Bookings in Vain.” In June, T.O.B.A. managers voted to close their theaters.

    “Talking pictures put the musicians out of work,” sighed Tom Dorsey. “With the vaudeville acts, the good ones went to Hollywood and the other ones got porter jobs and became firemen and dishwashers. Got out of the business. It was finished. Because it was another era altogether, and it just turned everything around. It was a tragedy in a way, but time brings on changes. The same way with the blues singers – they went out.” By 1932, Paramount Records had folded.

    Ma Rainey reverted back to minstrelsy. Her troupe played east Texas oilfield towns with the carnival of Donald MacGregor, who once earned his keep as the Ringling Brothers’ Scottish Giant. Dressed in a kilt, he acted as Ma’s barker, introducing her as the Black Nightingale. By now the touring bus was history, and Ma Rainey traveled in a crude homemade trailer that was little more than a canvas tent attached to rough timber mounted on the chassis of an old automobile. She canned her own vegetables and cooked her own meals on a portable stove. During 1933 Ma shared billings with Bessie Smith at Fort Worth’s Fat Stock Show; at her three-day show in Houston, her accompanist was young T-Bone Walker.
    With the deaths of her mother and sisterin 1935, Ma Rainey retired from the road to live with her brother Thomas in a house she’d built for her mother in the historic black community of Liberty District in Columbus, Georgia. A good businesswoman, Ma also owned two theaters in the area. She joined the Friendship Baptist Church, where her brother was a deacon.
    Ma Rainey died of heart disease on December 22, 1939, and was buried in Columbus’ Portersdale Cemetery. In an ironic postscript for The Mother of the Blues, her death certificate listed her profession as “housekeeping.” Six months later, Memphis Minnie recorded a tribute song entitled “Ma Rainey”:
    “She was born in Georgia, traveled all over this world
    She was born in Georgia, traveled all over this world
    And she was the best blues singer, peoples, I ever heard”
    During the ensuing years, Ma Rainey’s records inspired many other singers – Big Mama Thornton and Dinah Washington among them.

    Beginning in the mid 1960s, albums of old Ma Rainey 78s were issued as albums; one of the best was Milestone’s 1974 two-record Ma Rainey anthology. In 1981, Sandra Lieb published the full-length biography Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Soon afterward, August Wilson wrote the musical Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, with Theresa Merritt performing the title role to great success on Broadway. “White folks just don’t understand about the blues,” Ma’s character told the audience. They don’t understand that it’s life’s way of talkin’. You don’t sing to feel better – you sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.”

    The play received rave reviews. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom sneaks up on you like the anger, pain and defiance that rides on the exultant notes of the blues,” proclaimed Newsweek’s October 22, 1984, issue. “It’s a fierce and biting one, mixing the savage inevitability of black rage with the shrewd humor of jazz itself.” In the New York Times, Frank Rich praised the production as “funny, salty, carnal and lyrical.” In 1985, Manhattan Records released the original cast recording.

    Nine years later, Ma Rainey was honored with a U.S. postage stamp. Today, the home she built for her mother at 805 Fifth Avenue in Columbus, Georgia, has been restored as the Ma Rainey House and Blues Museum, where visitors can view the great blues singer’s piano, photos, contracts, and other memorabilia. All of her 78s have been reissued on CD.


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    © 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.


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      7 comments on “Ma Rainey: The Life and Music of “The Mother of the Blues”

      1. Gorgeous Stuff! My spouse and i had been only contemplating that there’s too much wrong important info on this theme and you also just simply updated our judgement. Appreciate your sharing a very effective piece of writing.

      2. Eddie Rainey on said:

        In some way I am related to this ” Ma Rainey”. I have been told that She was my great grandfather’s sister. I have been told the history of how my family to Sarasota FL. And How my People came here because there were problems within the family in Ocilla, Fitsgerald and Columbus Ga.
        Seems that MS Alberta or Gertrude was shot because one would not go the the cotton fields shortly after giving birth to a baby. I may have the name wrong here. My Aunt Dora Mae Rainey (Ballard) told me before she died that my great grand aunt was on a Postage stamp. and was a blues singer that traveled around singing and dancing. She said that Ma played with some of the most famous bands during that time and that she was the mother of the blues. I will list names of relatives in that area. Joe Rainey, Dora Rainey, Andrew Rainey, Marie King, Beatrice Gibson and the entire King family. I wish I knew more. If anyone reads this give any information at my email address. Thanks

        • Some excellent reportage here re the Mother of the Blues. I wrote and compiled the 5-CD set who’s front cover graces your article and it’s my tribute to her. My kid brother and I saw a superb performance of the famous play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” a few years ago at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. Absolutely awesome! Would love to develop a correspondence with Eddie, if he’s still around! I am doing the only book on Clara Smith-Queen of the Moaners-for the Spartanburg Public County Libraries in SC. Clara sang and moaned very much in the style of the great Ma Rainey. Like Memphis Minnie said ‘got to keep the good work on’.
          ‘Mississippi’ Max Haymes.

      3. Tee on said:

        That really shed some insight on Ma Rainey. I saw the movie Bessie and although it was entertaining, it portrayed her as a loud-mouthed, butch lesbian, hardly the married woman who banned alcohol and enjoyed women ‘from time to time.’ I think the truth would have been much more interesting and less one-dimensional.

      4. Fred C. Fussell on said:

        Nice article — and one that bypasses several often-repeated misstatements about Rainey, including her given name (it was not Melissa Nix), her place of death (it was not Rome, Georgia), and several other oft-repeated false bits and pieces about her life. He does, however, bring out the tired old story that on her death certificate her occupation is listed as “housekeeping.” While that is certainly true, the fact is that her brother Thomas Pridgett, was the informant for that death certificate and he just told the truth. At the time of her death, Rainey had retired from show business and did indeed spend her days keeping house — but it was her own house that she was keeping.

      5. Wow! I have tried to study Ma over the decades and information was just not available. I was really pleased to hear when the Lieb book came out and bought a copy. Lieb was supposed to be the expert on Ma. She should have talked with YOU before writing that book! This is more information in this one article then the Lieb book had to offer. Almost all of that book was just Lieb’s critique of all of Ma’s recordings. Thanks for bringing this to life! Very fascinating and interesting. It’s hard to believe that her records are now 95 years old. It’s hard to trace these lives nearly 100 years later. There’s no one left alive that can tell the stories.

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