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.
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.
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.
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.
“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”
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”
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 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.
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.
She was born in Georgia, traveled all over this world
And she was the best blues singer, peoples, I ever heard”
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.”
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.