If W.C. Handy is the acknowledged “Father of the Blues,” than who is the mother?
Ma Rainey was one of the earliest professional blues singers and part of the first generation of such singers to record their music. She was called the “Mother of the Blues” by her record label and was an important influence on younger blues women like Bessie Smith. More importantly, Rainey was a major influence on the emerging generation of men and women blues singers.
The rise of the first working class group of African-American women to sing their way to fame and fortune in the 1920’s was closely associated with the development of sound recording technology and the creation of the U.S. commercial recording industry..
Mamie Smith was the first African-American female performer to make a vocal blues recording with “Crazy Blues” The song was recorded by Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds on Aug. 10, 1920 in New York on Okeh Record, with a set of songs including “It’s Right Here For You (If You Don’t Get It, ‘Tain’t No Fault of Mine).” The record was a surprise hit and sold a million copies in less than a year.
The record companies were surprised by the large number of records bought by African Americans. The success of the song revealed that African-Americans represented a new lucrative market.
In response, record companies changed their business strategy and searched for black female blues singers. The new strategy increased profitability, because there was a large supply of performers eager to record their songs. These performers were poorly paid for the ownership and distribution rights to their songs. Despite this fact, thousands of black jazz and blues artists were eventually recorded. In the process, record companies documented and preserved one of the richest eras of musical creativity in U.S. history.
The “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, who is the first great female blues vocalist, began her career in minstrel shows and vaudeville. As a popular stage entertainer on the Southern theatre circuit, Rainey was the first to put authentic blues into her song repertoire. She performed in a large tent on a stage floor made of wood planks, with lanterns for lighting. The simplicity of the forum taught Rainey how to shout, due to the lack of a microphone.
Rainey signed a recording contract with Paramount in 1923 at the age of 38 years old and was already considered an experienced performer. Her first recorded song was the traditional number “Bo-Weevil Blues”, cut with Austin and Her Blue Serenaders. Her cheerful and energetic personality comes out loud and clear through the hisses and pops and scratches of these early recordings.
The boll weevil is a beetle measuring an average length of six millimeters, which feeds on cotton buds and flowers. Thought to be native to Central America, it migrated into the U.S from Mexico in the late 19th century and had infested all cotton-growing areas by the 1920s, devastating the industry and the people working in the American south.
One of the most famous and recorded of all blues songs is the traditional, murder-threatening “See See Rider Blues”, which Rainey recorded with Louis Armstrong in 1924. Rainey was the first to record the song, which gave her the copyright. It was one of the best renditions of the more than 100 versions.
In total, Rainey composed or collaborated on at least a third of the 92 songs she recorded for Paramount Records. Her songs were rooted in the experiences of Southern African-Americans. The story telling lyrics were told from the perspective of a very strong and tough woman in turmoil. The subject matter of the songs dealt with abandonment by men, prostitution, lesbianism, promiscuity, sado-masochism, drinking binges, travel, work, prison, superstition and murder.
Rainey gained a powerful command over her audiences with her thick straightened hair sticking out all over, her huge teeth capped in gold, an ostrich plume in her hand, and dressed in a sparkling sequined dress and long triple necklace of shining gold coins. By 1927, Ma was successful enough to buy a Mack bus with her name emblazoned on the side.
Ma Rainey was a strong, independent woman who unapologetic about her unconventional choice of clothes, recreational activities and bed partners. In fact, Rainey was in trouble with the police several times for her lesbian behavior. In 1925, she was arrested for taking part in an orgy at home involving women in her chorus. Bessie Smith bailed her out of jail.
Ma Rainey’s song “Prove It On Me Blues” is a clear indication that she doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. The following lyrics show that she is just telling it how it is:
They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.
Sure got to prove it on me.
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men
Rainey performed during the first three decades of the 20th century and enjoyed mass popularity during the blues craze of the 1920s. Unlike many other blues musicians, Rainey earned a reputation as a professional on stage and in business. When the blues faded from popularity, Rainey returned to her hometown, Columbus, Georgia in 1935, where she ran two theaters. Ma Rainey died from a heart attack in Rome, Georgia on Dec. 22, 1939.
Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia and was the second of five children of Thomas and Ella Pridgett, from Alabama. She made her performing debut at the age of 14 in a local show called “A Bunch of Blackberries.” In her late teens, she married William Rainey, and both toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.
Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blue Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1990, the same year she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “See, See Rider” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2004.