History Hunt: Ma Rainey

I’m a big fan of rock music as well as classical, and one of the things I’ve learned during my history hunting is that I have a lot of African-American women to thank for creating the genre. One of these women is Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett, also known as Ma Rainey.

Ma Rainey was born in Georgia on April 26, 1886 (or possibly sometime in September in 1882 in Alabama). She was “discovered” during a talent show, and this launched her extremely successful career as a blues singer–in fact, she’s been called “The Mother of the Blues.” She performed throughout the southern United States along with her husband, William “Pa” Rainey, who she married in 1904 and separated from in 1916. She also composed some of her own music, including “Lost Wandering Blues” and “Dream Blues.”

Among the people she met and performed with were Bessie Smith, who went on to be one of the most popular blues singers in the 1920s and 30s, Louis Armstrong, and Thomas Dorsey, “the father of black gospel music” (LGBT History Month). It’s speculated that Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith may have dated, although at this time, same-gender relationships were not supposed to be spoken about openly, and so it’s difficult to know for sure.

However, Ma Rainey was a rule-breaker–her 1928 song “Prove It On Me” talks about same-gender relationships, without using allusions and references to hide what she’s singing about, as other musicians of the day tended to. By all accounts, she lived exactly as she wished and had a highly successful career, including making over 100 recordings with Paramount Records. When the blues fell out of fashion in the 1930s, she retired back to Georgia and ran two theatres for the rest of her life. She’s now a part of the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and Georgia Women of Achievement. There’s a Gertrude “Ma” Rainey House and Blues Museum in Georgia and the US Postal Service even created a stamp honouring her in 1994!

Listen to “Lost Wandering Blues,” one of Ma Rainey’s compositions, below:

And here’s “Jelly Bean Blues,” performed by Ma Rainey and Louis Armstrong:

Note for parents/guardians: Ma Rainey often sang about material that can be considered inappropriate for younger audiences. If you would like guidance regarding appropriate songs for kids to listen to, please contact me!

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (sources):
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939) at the New Georgia Encyclopedia
Ma Rainey at LGBT History Month
Ma Rainey at Biography.com Note: References to mature content are made in the article and accompanying video.
Ma Rainey at Wikipedia

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