More than a century after she first discovered the blues while touring, “mother of the blues” Ma Rainey’s impact and influence is still being reckoned with, as the 2020 Viola Davis film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom attests. Rainey’s authenticity, booming voice, mesmerizing stage persona, and transgressive lyrics opened the door for the female artists who followed in her footsteps, from Janis Joplin to Megan Thee Stallion.
Born in Columbus, Georgia, in the mid-1880s, Gertrude Pridgett began singing in church at the age of 12. After honing her skills, she began performing in a local stage show as a teen before touring the American South with various Black vaudeville acts. In 1902, Rainey came across a young woman singing a somber heartbreak song. She added it to her performances, and, according to legend, when asked to describe the song, Rainey coined it “the blues.” The genre presented the audacious performer with the opportunity to tell the story of her life — raw and uncut — at a time when the narrative of the Black female experience was absent from mainstream music.
In 1904, Pridgett met and married William “Pa” Rainey and became Ma Rainey, a play on her husband’s nickname. The pair would have success on the minstrel circuit and touring together as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues until their divorce in 1916. Rainey then set out to craft a stage persona with bulletproof confidence and swagger.
Rainey began penning original 12-bar blues — a rare occurrence in an era when most acts sang covers. Her songs contained unconventional themes about lust, infidelity, backstabbing, drinking, and vengeance — no-holds-barred music about Black female autonomy.
Also at the vanguard of style, Rainey would don ostrich feathers, sequined dresses, wigs, heavy stage makeup, and flash her gold teeth while moaning original songs about sexual freedom and love.
However, sex wasn’t the only theme of Rainey’s music. Her song “Black Eye Blues” centers on a woman threatening vengeance on an abusive lover — a predecessor to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan’s “Stone Cold Dead In The Market (He Had It Coming)” and the Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl.”
Rainey’s trailblazing didn’t end there. The early feminist icon was among the first female artists to embrace her reported queerness in her music. Academic and political activist Angela Davis has called her 1928 song “Prove It On Me” — which centers on a masculine woman who dresses in men’s clothing and dates women — “a cultural precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s which began to crystallize around the performance and recording of lesbian-affirming songs.”
Rainey’s songs, many of which she wrote, have become lasting and often-covered hallmarks of the blues: “See See Rider Blues,” “Moonshine Blues,” “Prove It On Me,” and “Bo-Weavil Blues,” among others.
Rainey made an indelible impact on mainstream music and the culture at-large. She mentored Bessie Smith to greatness and inspired Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Louis Armstrong (whom she once toured and recorded with). Poets of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Allen Brown, featured her in their collections, while literary great Alice Walker looked to her songwriting for inspiration for The Color Purple.
While Rainey’s impact was not widely celebrated in her lifetime, she began receiving her flowers a few decades after her death, with inductions into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as well as numerous books and essays about her life and legacy. The iconic blues pioneer’s radical embrace of sexuality and candor in her music continues to ripple through the sounds of the Black female pop acts that succeeded her.
By Desiree Bowie, Courtesy, RAGA