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Ma Rainey: Mother of the Blues

“You like blues? I’ll give you the blues. Don’t call your mother for another week, and I guarantee you’ll have the blues…” ~ my mom

During the last 18 months that I’ve written for TheBluesBlogger site, I rarely mention my mother. Since its Mother’s Day, I thought I’d give her a bit of a plug… This year I bought her a digital photo frame that plays music. So I’ve been loading a bunch of pictures from the past and present. The frame includes some of her favorite artists and some selected tunes… At the same time, I wanted to write something for this Sunday… And who better than the “Mother of the Blues?”

Ma Rainey
Born as Gertrude Pridgett in a poor neighborhood of Columbus Georgia in 1886, she was recalled by her family as “singin soon as she was talking.” Gertrude was raised in a showbiz family that performed minstrel and vaudeville shows. In 1904 and not quite twenty years old, she married song and dance man William “Pa” Rainey. From that moment she became known as “Ma Rainey”. Her husband ran a traveling minstrel show and there she displayed her talent for the next 20 years.

During those times, black musicians and dancers took over the old minstrel shows. Ma and Pa traveled a circuit that was confined to the South, the Midwest, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas. Every city had its segregated theater, and in the country there were tent shows. It was a humiliating picture of their own race, but there wasn’t many opportunities in the entertainment industry at that time until jazz and blues gained respect and popularity.

Rainey reached her greatest success in the 1920s when the phonograph and radio opened up jazz and blues to a mass audience. She made over a 100 recordings between 1923 and 1928, most of them hits. She collaborated with the likes of Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins and a young Louis Armstrong.

Ma Liked Her Women

In the year 1925 police in Chicago police responded to a noise complaint and found a room full of naked women in “intimate” situations. Rainey spent the night in jail for hosting an indecent party. She was bailed out the following morning by friend and fellow blues singer Bessie Smith.

The legend goes that when Bessie was a young teen, she was kidnapped and dropped at Ma’s feet in a potato sack. Rainey would go on to mother Bessie and act as a mentor; teaching her to sing the blues and develop her stage presence. There were rumors to the effect that Smith and Rainey were connected romantically, but there was never any proof. One thing was for sure, Rainey was outspoken on women’s issues and was seen as a role model for future women entertainer’s who wanted to take over their own careers.

The Great Depression

ended Rainey’s career as people were unable to afford records. She would go home and retire with her earnings from her success. At the age of 53 in 1939, Ma died of heart failure. Her death would scarcely be noticed at the time. It wasn’t until 1992 that her home was restored by the city of Columbus and nominated in the national register. She would later be selected into The Blues Hall of Fame in 1983, The Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and then honored on a U.S postage stamp in 1994.

It may be interesting to note that her song See See Rider Blues had over a 100 different versions, but was made into a number 1 hit by Chuck Willis entitled C.C. Rider. It was also made famous by the band The Animals back in 1966. Other renditions would be sung by Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich and Janis Joplin.

When you go back through music history there is little documentation of any other woman that sung the blues before Ma Rainey and therefore rightly became known as The Mother of the Blues.

Growing Up in the Sixties

my mother wasn’t around much. Working a 12-14 hours day 6 days a week didn’t leave much time to enjoy some of the finer things in life. My mother was tough, but always fair. She worked hard to provide for her family. As a result I was able to further develop my love for music. She was never discouraging, and through her support, I was able to share some cool experiences from my youth and some others later down the road. Something that would never have been possible without her. And for that I will forever be grateful.

So how did you spend your Mother’s Day? How familiar are you with The Mother of the Blues? Any other musical memories you’d like to share on this special day? Your comments are welcome as usual.

Happy Mother’s Day,

TheBluesBlogger

5 Responses to “Ma Rainey: Mother of the Blues”

  1. pjazzypar May 10, 2009 at 1:29 am #

    Great Post BB! I am familiar with Bessie Smith a little more than Ma Rainey, but I do know who Ma Rainey is and her influence on popular music. I appreciate you sharing the antedotal information, which I found fun and humorous. As for Bessie, she was in an automobile accident and might have survived had she not had to be transported to the “colored” hospital. She laid in an unmarked grave until Janis Joplin bought a stone for her grave. Again thanks for the great background information on a true “work of art”.

  2. Retrokimmer May 10, 2009 at 7:55 am #

    OH EXCELLENT CHOICE FOR MOTHER’S DAY! I AM PLAYING IT RIGHT NOW……

    NOW FOR SOME BIG MAMA THORNTON!

    LOVED THIS BB

    KIM

  3. marcel lemieux May 10, 2009 at 8:47 am #

    Good article, choice of videos and intro…Ma Rainey..like other,s get the credit after their death..too bad….thanks to good blogs like this .they live on….keep up the nice work…thanks

  4. danny May 10, 2009 at 9:05 am #

    Happy Mothers day to all..

  5. Susan April 26, 2010 at 9:59 pm #

    I’d never heard of Ma Rainey but was enthralled with what you showed. Great Mother’s Day post (for last year). Happy Birthday to the mother of the blues.

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