How Ma Rainey Became Jim Crow America’s ‘Mother Of The Blues’

Fighting racism, sexism and homophobia in Jim Crow America, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey became one of the most popular singers of the 1920s.

As one of the first famous African-American blues artists, Ma Rainey cemented her place in music history in the 1920s. In just five years, she recorded more than 90 songs, many of which were national successes.

But as a black bisexual woman, Rainey also struggled with the intense racism, sexism and homophobia that permeated Jim Crow America. And yet, she persevered to become the “mother of the blues” – paving the way for generations of artists who wanted to follow in her footsteps.


My Rainey

Archive by Michael Ochs/Stringer/Getty ImagesMa Rainey and the Georgia Jazz Band pose for a group photo. Around 1924-1925.

Few could have predicted his rise. Born in the American South, she was known simply as Gertrude Pridgett – and she wouldn’t take her stage name from Ma Rainey for years. But before long, her incredible singing voice would capture the attention of audiences at talent shows and vaudevilles. And she was so good they couldn’t ignore her.

From collaborating with Louis Armstrong to forming a young Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey helped breathe new life into a genre of music that has inspired some of the most iconic artists to date.

Who was Ma Rainey?

Gertrude Pridgett

Wikimedia CommonsAlthough not well known today, Ma Rainey was one of the most revered blues artists of her time.

Before being Ma Rainey, she was born Gertrude Pridgett, the second of five children of Thomas and Ella Pridgett. Beyond that, the specific details of his early life remain murky to this day.

My Rainey often claimed that she was born on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. However, a 1900 census entry showed his birthday to be in September 1882 and his birthplace to be somewhere in Alabama.

After his father’s death in 1896, Rainey’s mother decided to work for the Central Railway of Georgia. But Ma Rainey had another career in mind, even at a young age.

When Rainey was just a teenager, she started working with the goal of becoming a professional singer. She performed in public for the very first time in 1900. At the time, she joined a stage show called “The Bunch of Blackberries” at the Springer Opera House in Columbus.

Although Rainey stayed close to home at first, it wasn’t long before she started traveling the country with vaudeville acts. While on the road in 1902, she discovered a new genre of music that is now called the blues. And it changed his life forever.

A trailer for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottoma Netflix movie released in December 2020.

It all started when a girl ‘came to the tent one morning and started singing about ‘the man’ who left her, John Work wrote while reminiscing about an interview with Rainey in the 1930s.

“The song was so strange and poignant that it got a lot of attention. Ma Rainey took such an interest in it that she learned the song from the Visitor and used it shortly afterwards in her act as an encore.

In 1904 she married fellow singer and performer Will Rainey and they soon began touring together as a duo. As they performed various routines with different minstrel troupes, they began calling each other “Ma and Pa Rainey”, hence his stage name.

Often accompanied by a jug band or a jazz combo, Ma Rainey’s dance and comedy numbers drew large crowds. Over time, Rainey gradually incorporated more blues into his set. And as she traveled, she heard other artists picking up the style and incorporating it into their sets as well.

For the first time, many felt that the black experience in America had its own distinct and authentic musical voice. And Ma Rainey was the face of it.

Become the “mother of the blues”

mother of the blues

Donaldson Collection/Contributor/Getty ImagesMy Rainey with a stranger. Around 1925.

A petite and portly woman, Ma Rainey was known for her horsehair wigs and wide smile that showed off her capped gold teeth. She was not at all shy when it came to fashion and could often be seen wearing satin dresses, false eyelashes, high heels and a necklace made of gold coins.

At the time, she was taking a huge risk doing this, especially as a black woman. She was often mocked by others in the industry. “They said she was the ugliest woman in show business” said Alberta Hunter, another blues artist. “But Ma Rainey didn’t care, because she was a crowd puller.”

Indeed, her performances were often filled with people eager to see what she would do next. Even some white people came to see his shows, which were among the first to be incorporated into the Jim Crow South.

“Ma had the audience in the palm of her hand,” said pianist and composer Thomas Dorsey. “I traveled with her for almost four years. She was a natural drawing board.

Viola Davis

netflixViola Davis as Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottoma Netflix movie released in December 2020.

Ma Rainey also didn’t need a man by her side to put on a great performance. She separated from her husband in 1916 and began touring with a show that put her front and center: Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set. And she quickly gained a reputation as a performer.

“When Ma Rainey comes to town, people from anywhere miles from Cape Girardeau, Poplar Bluff flock to hear Ma do her stuff,” read a poem by the legendary Sterling Brown.

But despite the fame and brilliance, Rainey has remained humble and kind to loved ones and fans. She called everyone “sugar”, “darling” and “baby”.

In 1923, Rainey signed with the Paramount Record Company. Over the next five years, she would record over 90 songs for the label, making her a music icon.

The power of Ma Rainey

My Rainey in Chicago

Archive by Michael Ochs/Getty ImagesMa Rainey and her band in Chicago. Around 1923.

Ma Rainey wasn’t afraid to dive into dark, taboo and controversial subjects in her music. In hits like “Bad Luck Blues,” “Bo-Weavil Blues,” “See Rider Blues,” “Jelly Bean Bluesand “Moonshine Blues,” Rainey sang about prostitution, drunkenness, domestic violence, murder, and abandonment.

She was also open about her attraction to women. “Went out last night with a whole host of my friends,” one song goes. “They had to be women, because I don’t like men.” As you might expect, not everyone was accepting of their sexuality at that time.

In 1925, she was arrested by Chicago police after being caught in the middle of “sex gossip” or a “lesbian orgy” with a group of women. Luckily for her, another blues singer named Bessie Smith – who was also a bisexual woman – arrived to get her out of jail.

One of Ma Rainey’s popular songs.

Although Ma Rainey found herself in hot water at times, her fans adored her and Paramount called her the “songbird of the south.” As record money poured in, concerts across the country sold out.

Ma Rainey traveled to them with her troupe in a tour bus she had bought and decorated with her name. The group was having fun on the road, stopping once on the side of the road to serenade a few cows.

“She was the biggest star of her time,” Dorsey said. “There will never be another black woman like Ma Rainey.”

But with the evolution of cinema in the 1930s, ticket sales began to decline. Rainey’s star seemed to fade, and in doing so, she returned to Georgia. Although she mostly retired from show business, she spent a few years working as a theater owner in the area.

At some point, she remarried a younger man, but much of that relationship remains unknown – and it’s unclear how long it lasted.

Ma Rainey died of a heart attack in 1939 when she was in her fifties. But his legacy lives on today.

The legacy of the “mother of the blues”

Mo’Nique talks about playing Ma Rainey in the 2015 HBO movie Besiewhich focused on the life of Bessie Smith but also featured Ma Rainey as an important figure.

Ma Rainey was not the first blues singer. But she was widely recognized as the first popular artist to incorporate the blues into her work. She is also known as the first “great” blues singer.

Although Ma Rainey was certainly not the most famous blues artist of all time, his influence on other artists cannot be underestimated. And when she passed away, it was seen as a huge loss for many in the industry – even though she hadn’t been as successful in the end.

“People have looked lonely since Ma Rainey left,” Memphis Minnie sang in a song she wrote for Rainey in 1944. “But she let little Minnie carry on the good works.”

Another more famous Rainey protege was Bessie Smith, who still holds the title “Empress of the Blues”.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

National Foundation for the HumanitiesA scene from a production of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

In 1982, August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom won a Pulitzer Prize. In 1990 Rainey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“White people hear the blues coming out, but they don’t know how it got there,” says Ma Rainey’s character on Wilson’s show. “They don’t understand that’s the way to talk about life. We don’t sing to feel better. You sing because it’s a way of understanding life.

After discovering Ma Rainey, discover the troubled life of blind American bluesmen. Next, learn about the Harlem Hellfighters, the black American war heroes who brought jazz to Europe.

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How Ma Rainey Became Jim Crow America’s ‘Mother Of The Blues’