She sang them 17 years before they were called the blues — those sad and poetic melodies about love and loss.
Back then — in the early 1900s American South — she wasn’t even called Ma Rainey. She was Gertrude Pridgett, a chubby girl from Georgia.
It wouldn’t be long, though, before her low, unwavering voice was accompanied by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. Before she trained a young Bessie Smith. Before she helped birth a genre of music that — echoing through the deep South and the decades — has inspired every American style to date.
Born in 1886, the “Mother of Blues” Ma Rainey began her singing career on the tent show circuit at the age of 14.
She first discovered this new kind of music when a girl “came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the ‘man’ who had left her,” John Work wrote about an interview with Rainey from the 1930s.
“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.”
Accompanied by a jug band or a jazz combo, Rainey’s dancing and comedy drew big crowds. She became a headliner, traveling with circuses and famous jazz groups.
Rainey gradually incorporated more and more blues into her set and, as she traveled, she heard other artists picking up the style. For the first time, many people felt that the black experience in America was being given its own distinct and authentic musical voice.
And Ma Rainey was the face of it.
A stout 5’6” lady, her horsehair wigs stuck out in all directions and her wide smile showed rows of gold, misaligned teeth. She wore a necklace of gold coins, satin gowns, false eyelashes, and high heels.
“They said she was the ugliest woman in show business,” Alberta Hunter, a fellow blues artist, once said. “But Ma Rainey didn’t care, because she pulled in the crowds.”
That was for certain — even white people came to see her shows, which were among the first to be integrated in Jim Crow’s South.
“Ma had the audience in the palm of her hand,” Thomas Dorsey, a piano player and composer, remembered. “I traveled with her almost four years. She was a natural drawing card.”
Rainey would shimmy like jelly, running around the stage like a crazed person caught in a storm. She’d spin and jiggle and slap her behind — starting a dance trend affectionately called the “Black Bottom.”
“When Ma Rainey comes to town, folks from anyplace miles aroun’– from Cape Girardeau, Poplar Bluff flocks to hear Ma do her stuff,” a poem by the legendary Sterling Brown reads.
Despite the fame, Rainey stayed humble, gentle and kind. A devout Christian, she never cursed. She called everyone “sugar,” “honey,” and “baby” — even white people.
In 1923, Rainey signed with Paramount Records at the age of 36. Over the next five years, she’d record 100 songs for the label.
In hits like “Bad Luck Blues,” “Bo-Weavil Blues,” “See Rider Blues,” “Jelly Bean Blues,” and “Moonshine Blues,” Rainey sang about prostitution, drunk men, domestic violence, murder, and abandonment.
Though married, her lyrics often suggested a comfort with lesbianism.
“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,” one song goes. “They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.”
Paramount labeled her the “Songbird of the South.”
As the record money poured in, concerts across the country sold out. She traveled to them all with her troupe in a tour bus she’d bought herself and had emblazoned with her name. They’d goof around and have a good time, once stopping on the side of the road to serenade some cows.
“She was the biggest star of her time,” Dorsey said. “There’ll never be another black woman like Ma Rainey.”
But with the invention of film in the 1930s, ticket sales began to dwindle. The golden age of the blues seemed to be fading and, as it did, Rainey returned to her Georgia hometown.
She died from a heart attack in 1939 at the age of 53 but her legacy lived on.
“People it sure look lonesome since Ma Rainey been gone,” Memphis Minnie sang in a song she wrote for Rainey in 1944. “But she left little Minnie to carry the good works on.”
Another — and more famous — Rainey protégé was Bessie Smith, who still holds the title as “Empress of the Blues.”
In 1982, August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” won a Pulitzer Prize and in 1990, Rainey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“White folks hear the blues come out, but they don’t know how it got there,” the character of Ma Rainey says in Wilson’s show. “They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.”
HBO is currently working to create an onscreen version of the musical, starring Denzel Washington.
Apparently singing like Ma Rainey still helps us understand.
Next, take a look inside the troubled lives of America’s blind bluesmen. Then, check out the Harlem Hellfighters, America’s first black war heroes who brought jazz to Europe.