- Navneet Sethi
A version of this article originally appeared in The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present.
early blues singer often called the Mother of the Blues. Born in Columbus, Georgia, to parents who were minstrels, Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett debuted as an entertainer at the age of fourteen in a revue at the Springer Opera House in Columbus. Having well learned many vaudeville songs from her parents as well as from country folk, Gertrude, by the sheer audacity of her art created a country-brewed variety of classic blues. Soon after her first stage performance she joined a traveling vaudeville troupe, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and while in Saint Louis in 1902 she first heard a blues style and thereafter developed her own.
In 1904 Gertrude Pridgett married a fellow vaudeville performer, William “Pa” Rainey, after which she styled herself as Ma Rainey. The two toured the South with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, singing blues and popular songs as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Ma and Pa Rainey divorced in 1916. Subsequently, Ma Rainey was openly bisexual.
A solo singer after her divorce, Rainey signed with Paramount Records in 1923. From 1923 to 1928 she recorded about a hundred blues songs with Paramount, including the classics “C.C. Rider” (or “See See Rider”) and “Bo Weavil Blues.” When Ma Rainey sang “Traveling Blues”—
I'm dangerous and blue, can't stay here no more, I'm dangerous and blue, can't stay here no more; Here come my train folks, and I've got to go
—she sang for all the travelers but through her own spirit and verve she gave hope to the black woman. Recorded in Chicago in 1928 for Paramount, with Herman Brown on the washboard and Thomas Dorsey on the piano as Ma Rainey and Her Tub Jug Washboard Band, “Traveling Blues” is attributed to an unknown composer—thus making it the blues of the silent, invisible black woman as well.
“Gone Daddy Blues” provided a nonconformist attitude for black women struggling to shake off the burden and announce:
I'm going away, I'm going to stay, I'll find a man I love some day; I got my ticket, clothes in my hand, Trying to find that southbound man.
Recorded in Chicago in 1927, Rainey's “Gone Daddy Blues” was performed by Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Jazz Band, made up of Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Fletcher Henderson, and others. “Sweet Rough Man” (1928) and “Black Eye Blues” (1928) reveal the many contours of domestic violence as it impacted the woman. The twelve-bar blues line with its yearning note in the songs of Ma Rainey was not allowed to wallow in self-pity, and in fact “Prove It on Me Blues” celebrated erotic sisterhood as well, in lines like “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends, / They must have been women, ’cause I don't like no men.”
The changing politics of the recording industry monopolized by the whites eroded Ma Rainey's popularity in the 1930s, and she had to give way to the newly feted male blues musicians. Returning to the South with the Theater Owners’ Booking Agency (TOBA), Ma Rainey lived comfortably as the owner of two theaters in Columbus, Georgia, her hometown, where she died of a heart attack in 1939. She was listed in the local newspaper's obituary as a housekeeper. Ma Rainey's “Last Minute Blues” (1923) had forecast not just Ma's own fate as an artist but the fate of the disfranchised individual:
If anybody ask you who wrote this lonesome song, If anybody ask you who wrote this lonesome song, Tell ’em you don't know the writer, but Ma Rainey put it on.
Long after her death, Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1983 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
- Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998. Written from a black feminist perspective, the study is impeccable in its ability both to locate points of similarity and to provide the larger sociopolitical dynamics of the period in which the blues were made.
- Lieb, Sandra R. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. A full-length study of Ma Rainey resplendent in all her finery and foppery, as well as in her wisdom laced in the blues—all brought out lucidly through many anecdotes.