Who was Ma Rainey, “mother of the blues”?

Who was Ma Rainey? Following the release of the film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix, starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, we explore the real history behind the titular character known as the ‘mother of the blues’

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' (2020): Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“They don’t care nothin’ about me. All they want is my voice.” These are the words Ma Rainey uses to describe her white record producers in new Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on the life of trailblazing blues singer Gertrude Pridgett. With her carefully coiffed hair, bright make-up and trademarked gold teeth – Rainey (played by Viola Davis) is a vibrant figure with a powerful stage presence. But it is her voice – and not just the one she uses for singing – that shines through the story, as she pushed back against those intent on controlling her (namely her white management).

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“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,” explains Florene Dawkins in an article for The Guardian. “She mesmerised them and that was her control, that was her power, and she put her power into what she did.”

Ma Rainey: a biography

Born: 26 April 1886 (although some records suggest she was born in September 1882)

Died: 22 December 1939 (of a heart attack)

Birth name: Gertrude Pridgett

Parents: Ella (Allen) and Thomas Pridgett

Married: William ‘Pa’ Rainey

Known for: Singing/songwriting – she is one of the first recorded blues musicians, described by some as the ‘mother of the blues’

Ma Rainey poses for a portrait c1923. (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

Starring the late Chadwick Boseman as Rainey’s ambitious cornet player, Levee, and based on a 1984 play by American playwright August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has already been tipped for an Oscar. But who was the real Ma Rainey? We bring you five facts you need to know about the trailblazing singer known as the ‘mother of Blues’…


1

We don’t know exactly how old Ma Rainey was

Gertrude Pridgett was born in America in 1886 – or was it 1882? There is some dispute about the date of Rainey’s birth, with confusion also surrounding her place of birth (with different sources suggesting Georgia and Alabama interchangeably). Rainey herself claimed to have been born in 1886, but census records suggest she was actually four years older than this.

Whichever dates and locations you choose to believe, the facts are that Rainey was an African-American woman born in the deep South a generation after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. That she became known as the ‘mother of the blues’ – spearheading a genre of music that gave rise to American Jazz – makes for a remarkable tale, not least because Rainey made no secret of her bisexuality in her lyrics (more on that next). A woman ahead of her time (and birth date) – in every sense of the phrase.

Biographer Sandra Lieb observes in Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey (1981) that Rainey “offered to whites a glimpse into black culture far less obscured by white expectations, and offered to blacks a more direct affirmation” of their cultural power.


2

Ma Rainey’s ‘bisexuality’ was an open secret

Though she never publicly announced her sexuality, it is an open secret that Rainey had relationships with both men and women. She was allegedly caught having a sexual dalliance with one of her female dancers in New York at a ‘women-only’ party held at her residence. When neighbours complained about the noise of the gathering, police arrived to break up the party and Rainey was arrested. Blues star Bessie Smith, who Rainey mentored, is said to have bailed her out of jail. “I believe she was courting Bessie, the way they’d talk,” Rainey’s guitarist Sam Chatmon later said.

Rainey also hinted strongly at her sexual preferences in her music. In ‘Prove It on Me Blues’, for example, she sings: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends / 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.”

The real Ma Rainey with her band the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, c1924.(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
The real Ma Rainey with her band the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, c1924.(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

As her New York Times obituary notes, Rainey “helped to mainstream narratives of black female autonomy that had little to do with the Victorian norms of white society. Partly that meant speaking candidly about her attraction to women as well as men.”

3

She established her music career with her husband, ‘Pa Rainey’

Gertrude Pridgett married her husband, William Rainey, in 1904. He was also a singer, and together they toured as a double act under the billing ‘Ma and Pa Rainey’. The couple separated in 1916, after which Rainey began touring with her own show, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set.

Rainey retained her stage name ‘Ma’ following the split, although she insisted it was short for ‘Madame’ rather than as a motherly moniker. Her contemporary Danny Barker, a New Orleans jazz player, has suggested that the title denoted respect. “‘Ma’, that means the tops,” he said. “That’s the boss, the shack bully of the house, Ma Rainey. She’d take charge. ‘Ma Rainey’s coming to town, the boss blues singer.’ And you respect Ma.”

4

She is widely recognised as the first great female blues vocalist – but she was also a shrewd businesswoman

Although Rainey was not the first black woman to be recorded singing (that accolade goes to Mamie Smith), she was among the very first. From 1923 onwards, she recorded some 92 songs for publishing company Paramount alongside notable artists including Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson and Thomas A Dorsey. According to her New York Times obituary, she was “the first entertainer to successfully bridge the divide between vaudeville – the cabaret-style shows that developed out of minstrelsy in the mid-1800s, and catered largely to white audiences — and authentic black Southern folk expression.”

As well as being a talented musician, Rainey never suffered fools gladly. According to the show notes for August Wilson’s 1984 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, record producer Jay Mayo Williams described her as a “shrewd” businesswoman: “We never tried to put any swindles on her,” he comments. Rainey also owned and ran two playhouses in Columbus, Georgia: the Airdrome and the Lyric Theatre.

5

She is a feminist icon

Many consider Rainey to be an early feminist icon – and it’s easy to see why. The female characters in Rainey’s songs – many of which she wrote herself – often push back against traditional gender stereotypes of the time. While her lyrics often describe issues such as abandonment and infidelity, these are usually not a cause for emotional breakdown (in fact, some of the women are just as likely to cheat and abandon their partners themselves).

It is, writes the scholar and activist Angela Davis in the book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998), typical of Rainey’s songs for women to “explicitly celebrate their right to conduct themselves as expansively and even as undesirably as men”. In ‘Sleep Talking Blues’, for example, Rainey’s character threatens to murder her husband if he dares speak another woman’s name while he sleeps.

In a 2012 documentary, musician and gay rights activist Melissa Etheridge counted both Rainey and her mentee, Bessie Smith, among her inspirations. “They were bad women. They were singing in these clubs and they were birthing rock ‘n’ roll,” she said. “I always thought I was so revolutionary coming out [as a lesbian], and then you hear Ma Rainey sing, ‘I went out last night with some of my friends. Must have been women ‘cuz I don’t like no men…’ Come on, this was not popular stuff to be singing about back then, or stuff that they even talked about.”

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now showing at select cinemas and was released on Netflix on 18 December

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Rachel Dinning is the digital editorial assistant at HistoryExtra