Showstoppers and Curtain Raisers: Ma Rainey
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
SOURCES: In Order of Appearance: Chronicling 135 years on America’s Most Celebrated Stage, F. Clason Kyle, 2006. African American Theaters in Georgia: Preserving an Entertainment Legacy by Jason L. Ellerbee. University of Georgia, Master of Historic Preservation Thesis, 2004. 'All they want is my voice': the real story of 'Mother of the Blues' Ma Rainey by David Smith. The Guardian. December 15, 2020. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939) By: Mariana Brandman, NWHM Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History | 2020-2022. Ma Rainey Is Best Known as a Pioneer of the Blues, But She Broke More Than Musical Barriers BY ANDREW R. CHOW, Time Magazine, December 18, 2020.
Called the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey was known for her deep-throated voice and mesmerizing stage presence that drew packed audiences and sold hit records in the early twentieth century. Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia on April 26, 1886. Her parents, Thomas and Ella (Allen) Pridgett, were minstrel performers. Rainey displayed a talent for singing at a young age and began performing as a teenager. She made her debut, at the age of 14, with the Bunch of Blackberries revue at the Springer Opera House in Columbus. She then began singing with traveling vaudeville acts in tent shows, honky-tonks, and carnivals. She performed on the vaudeville circuit for many years across the South, inheriting some performative traditions from minstrels shows and honing her larger-than-life stage presence and comic timing. But while Rainey leaned into onstage maximalism, she was also drawn to the blues guitarists she saw on the road who took a more spartan, improvisatory, and emotionally raw approach to their music.
It was on the performance circuit that she met comedian, singer, and dancer Will “Pa” Rainey, and the two married in 1904. They formed a double act (“Ma and Pa Rainey”) and toured with various African American minstrel troupes and vaudeville groups, most notably the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. They were billed as “Assassinators of the Blues.” After about a dozen years of marriage, Rainey and her husband separated. Rainey then created her own show: “Madame Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set.” Ma Rainey was influential for bridging the traditions of vaudeville and authentic Southern blues. The blues descended from the call-and-response storytelling songs of West Africa. Captive Africans passed them down through the generations while enslaved in the Western Hemisphere. Rainey’s strong voice and characteristic “moaning” style of singing also fueled her success. A vibrant stage presence, she was known for her gold teeth, flashy clothing and jewelry, and establishing a personal connection with her audiences.
Life as a traveling entertainer was not easy for African Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) arranged many of their performances. TOBA was well known for its exploitative working conditions and the low wages it paid African American performers. Many eventually claimed that TOBA stood for “Tough on Black Artists.” Rainey began to incorporate blues songs and structures into performances, helping to pioneer a genre that would both entertain crowds while also speaking candidly about Black life in America. This approach captured the imagination of many Black Americans at a transformative moment in which, thanks to the Great Migration, the longstanding divides between North and South, rural and urban, antique and modern were becoming eroded or blurred. Rainey’s duality made her a hit before Southern audiences as well as in Chicago where she recorded—and set a template for future waves of Black musical innovation. Her performances also drew racially mixed (though still segregated) audiences, demonstrating her wide appeal. Her two-hour show usually began with jazz numbers by the band and a performance by a line of chorus girls. After comedy routines and other acts, Rainey would make her grand entrance and dazzle the audience with songs like “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and her encore, “See See Rider Blues.”
Rainey had a perfect voice for her new brand of music: low and gravelly, filled with both raw pathos and brassy authority. And it would likewise inspire imitators for generations to come. Ma signed a recording contract with Paramount Records in 1923, making her one of the earliest recorded blues musicians. When she signed on, Paramount was a furniture company in Wisconsin that had started in the recording business. Between 1923 and 1928, she recorded almost 100 records, many of them national hits that are now part of the American musical canon. Her 1924 recording of “See See Rider Blues” (for which she was accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong) was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004. One of her recording sessions forms the basis of August Wilson’s 1982 play – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The play takes its title from Rainey’s 1927 song of the same name (which in turn refers to the black bottom dance trend of the 1920s). It was a Broadway success and was recently adapted as a film.
Florene Dawkins, president of the Friends of Ma Rainey and champion for the preservation of her home in Columbus said, “I think her voice made a statement. It was strong. It was unapologetic. They didn’t have all the bells and whistles and the amplifiers we have in music today. It was just music point blank to your soul. It was how she was feeling. Like the blues is your story, she told her story.” Rainey didn’t just popularize the genre of classic blues: she helped write it. While other blues singers of the day, like Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith, were largely singing songs written by others, Rainey penned at least one-third of the songs she recorded. Many of those, like “Moonshine Blues” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” would become standards of the genre to be covered time and again.
Ma Rainey is believed to have remarried, though little is known about her second husband. She is also rumored to have had relationships with women including Bessie Smith. While very few public performers were fully out of the closet, Ma didn’t try very hard to hide her bisexuality. In 1925, she was arrested for throwing an “indecent” and “intimate” party with a group of young women, forcing Bessie Smith to bail her out. A few years later, she would release “Prove It On Me Blues.”
“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,” she sang. “They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men. It’s true I wear a collar and tie. Makes the wind blow all the while.” A cartoon ad for the song released by her record label Paramount embraced this genderbending: She wears a men’s three-piece suit and fedora and mingles with two women on a corner, while a policeman watches suspiciously in the shadows.
Dawkins stated, “People in the audience didn’t even know some of the things she was singing about. I think people close to her did, but a lot of the time people didn’t understand the lyrics. They just thought it was blues music. You also have to remember back in that time no one was open to those types of relationships.” Rainey’s defiance of social mores threw them into sharp relief. She was, Dawkins argues, a woman ahead of her time. “She said what she meant and she meant what she said. She didn’t apologize for her lifestyle or what she was and that’s what appeals to me.” In an era dominated by white composers, Ma Rainey imbued her songs with the depth and diversity of her own experiences as well those of other Black women, portraying anguish, rage, euphoria, love, sexual desire and much more. Angela Davis, in her 2011 book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, wrote that Rainey’s songs are full of women who “explicitly celebrate their right to conduct themselves as expansively and even as undesirably as men.” They wield pistols, carouse until the morning, dodge the police, and sleep around for revenge. “Have you ever been drunk, slept in all your clothes? And when you wake up, feel like you want a dose?” Rainey asks in “Dead Drunk Blues.”
Suits were also far from the only fashion statement that Ma made during her performing career. She traveled with four trunks full of accessories which included ostrich plumes, sequins, and jewelry. Onstage, she wore satin gowns and diamond tiaras; a necklace of gold coins often hung from her neck. “When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle,” Rainey’s longtime musical director Thomas A. Dorsey wrote in his unpublished memoirs. Thanks to her showmanship, songwriting and powerful voice, Rainey earned a reputation as one of the most dynamic performers in America in the 1920s, and her tour earnings reflected that popularity. She and her band could make a sizable $350 a week on tour with the Theater Owners’ Booking Association (for comparison, George Williams and Bessie Brown could make $175, while superstar Bessie Smith raked in $600). Her ability to negotiate sizable contracts, combined with her generosity, made her a beloved bandleader among musicians. “I used to dream of joining Ma Rainey’s band because she treated her musicians so wonderfully, and she always bought them an instrument,” the jazz icon Lionel Hampton is quoted as saying in Chris Albertson’s biography of Bessie Smith, Bessie. Her shows were also some of the earliest integrated shows to take place in the Jim Crow South.
But while Rainey earned a good amount of money, it wasn’t nearly the amount that she deserved. In the 1920s, record companies scrambled to sign Black artists while undermining them and exploiting them at every step. Executives coerced blues singers—especially those who had no experience in the recording industry—to sign away future royalties or even ownership of their songs, leaving many artists destitute after the peak of their popularity. This was common practice at Rainey’s label, Paramount, despite the fact that it was largely operated by a Black producer, J. Mayo Williams. Williams was known to be just as cutthroat as his white counterparts. He would later say that he subscribed to the industry maxim “screw the artist before he screws you.” Nine out of ten Paramount artists received no royalties regardless of their record sales. Williams would buy songs outright from artists for $5 to $20, keep the royalties for himself, and sit back and earn a steady living off them while the artists themselves struggled.
Rainey’s cultural legacy is profound. She was a mentor to legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, and she is credited with inspiring later singers such as Dinah Washington, Big Mama Thornton, and Janis Joplin. Ma made her home in Chicago for much of the 1920s and early 1930s. When she lost her recording contract with Paramount (the company claimed her style of blues had fallen out of fashion), she resumed touring and performed at private parties. Following the deaths of her sister and mother, Rainey returned to Columbus to live with her brother. She owned and managed two theaters (the Lyric and Airdome) and was active in Friendship Baptist Church, where her brother was a deacon. Ma Rainey passed away from heart disease on December 22, 1939, at the age of 53. Her death certificate lists her profession as “housekeeping.” She is buried in Porterdale Cemetery.
The Ma Rainey House Before Restoration - 805 5th Avenue
The Ma Rainey House and Blues Museum was completed in 2007 thanks in large part to receiving a Save America’s Treasures grant. The funding, secured by Congressman Sanford Bishop, was matched by funding from the Columbus Consolidated Government through a Special Option Sales Tax for the Liberty Heritage Historic District. These two sources plus private investment enabled this project to be completed. Historic Columbus played a significant role on the restoration committee, provided period artifacts for the house, and has granted the home additional funds for maintenance. Thanks to Florene Dawkins, Virginia Peebles, Fred Fussell, Congressman Bishop, the Columbus Consolidated Government, and the Friends of Ma Rainey, her home is preserved for future generations to learn about her life, her music, and her impact.
“She couldn’t control the world and segregation and exploitation, but she could control when she went on the stage, she could control the audience no matter. She mesmerized them and that was her control, that was her power, and she put her power into what she did. ‘They might not respect me or like me or think I’m a whole citizen, but when I get on that stage, I mesmerize them. I have them in my hand.’” Florene Dawkins Next Week: Next Thursday, we will continue exploring theatres, music, and the movies in Columbus. Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!