03 March 2010

Arts and Music: Ma Rainey

By Lorelie Brown

On April 26, 1886, Gertrude Pridgett was born to parents Ella and Thomas, who worked the minstrel circuit, a kind of sub-category to vaudeville.

It doesn't seem like a particularly auspicious beginning, does it? Who would have ever imagined that Gertrude Pridgett would eventually become Ma Rainey, the woman acknowledged to be the "Mother of the Blues"?

Ma Rainey got her start in entertaining early. By 1900, at 14, she was working steadily in vaudeville, and traveling with her parents. In 1904, she met and married William "Pa" Rainey, and at that point took on her iconic name. At some point in her travels--most people seem to believe in St. Louis--she heard authentic country blues, and began incorporating them into her routines, as well as putting her own spins on songs.

By 1912, Bessie Smith, who would later be known as the "Empress of the Blues" had joined their troupe as a dancer. At one point, it was believed that Ma Rainey had vocally trained Bessie Smith, but that's lately come into doubt. It's now said that Smith mostly got her stage presence from Rainey. (And something else, but I'll cover that in a second.)

In 1923, Ma Rainey started recording for Paramount and would eventually go on to record a hundred "sides" (mini-albums) with them. She wasn't the first, and her recordings weren't the best, primarily because of poor quality, but she became one of the most famous, bridging the gap between country blues and the woman-centric blues that would become the signature style of the Roaring Twenties. Despite a few minor scrapes with the law, she was an exemplary entertainer, and is often regarded as a consummate professional. Her career faded in the 30s, as blues went out of style because people were already miserable and couldn't stand to listen to anything sad. She retired to her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, where she managed two theaters until her death of heart disease in 1939.

I know what you're saying to yourself. Lorelie wrote about a figure with no sex or scandal? Pshaw. Yeah, right.

Well, didja wonder what happened to Pa Rainey? The simple answer is not much. He and Ma separated in 1916, twelve years after their marriage, and he disappeared into obscurity.

So what did Ma do after that on the relationship front? Apparently anything she wanted. In Chicago Ma Rainey was arrested after a noise complaint led police to a hotel room, where they discovered a number of performers from Rainey's current show in a state of undress and performing "intimate" acts. Oh, by the way? All the performers in that hotel room were women! Ma was bailed out of jail by Bessie Smith, who she supposedly also had a relationship with. The general supposition seems to be that Rainey was at the very least bisexual, and her songs seem to bear that out.

Now we're going to have the interactive portion of this program. I'm including a YouTube vid of Ma's "See See Rider Blues," one of her most famous songs. But I need you to do something for me before you hit play. Either turn off all background noise or get some headphones. Then, after you start it up, sit back and close your eyes. Listen to the emotion and particularly the pain easily heard in her voice. An amazing performer, isn't she? Now you understand why she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, fifty-one years after her death.