Gertrude Ma RaineyGertrude "Ma" Rainey

"See See Rider, See what you done done, lawd lawd lawd Made me love you, now ya gal done come..."

There she was. This short ("vertically challenged" _ that's what I call myself:-), full-figured woman in her 35 pound sequined dress and ostrich feather hat singing those blues in a tent set up in a cotton field.  "See See Rider" - this was one of Gertrude "Ma" Rainey's most famous songs.  Known as "The Mother of the Blues," " The Black Nightingale," "The Songbird of the South" and several other names, she is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential artists in the history of the blues.

Ma was born April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia.  She was one of five children who spent their Sundays singing at the First African Baptist Church. In 1902, Gertrude found "the blues" and also "found" comedian William "Pa" Rainey. They began touring as a song and dance team working with tent shows/levee camps and cabarets throughout the south.  They were married in 1904.  The couple toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels billed as "Ma and Pa Rainey - Assassinators of the Blues."  "Ma has been noted as the first singer to use blues in minstrel acts.  Her earthy, powerful voice enabled her to capture the essential quality of rural black life." (Snow, Blues Online)

Ma enjoyed extraordinary success in the south.  When folks found out that  Ma Rainey was coming to town, it became an event.  This being so, Ma was mostly unknown in the north.  In 1923, she recorded with the Paramount Label. She now enjoyed success in the north and extended her touring to the northern cities and began to refer to herself as "Madame" Rainey.

Ma had an interesting relationship with the young Bessie Smith.  Bessie joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in 1914 and Ma supposedly was her coach. Both were reported as being bi-sexual, but an affair between the two has never been proven.   Although there were many singers during this period singing the same style of music, Bessie was her only rival.  The two supposedly shared a love-hate relationship.

Although Ma was not considered "beautiful" by today's standards, she knew how to "strut her stuff."  She was known for her glittering outfits, wild head-dress and a penchant for gold jewelry.  When she performed, she took over the stage.  Some of her songs include: "Shave 'em Dry Blues,"  " Hustlin' Blues,"  " Weepin' Woman Blues," " Stormy Sea Blues," and many more. Big Mama Thornton and Dinah Washington have sited her as being one of their primary influences.

In 1935, Ma Rainey retired from music and began living with brother Thomas Pridgett, a deacon at the Friendship Babptist Church in Columbus, GA.  She became very involved in church activities.  She was a very good businesswoman.  She owned and operated The Lyric/Airdrome Theatres in Rome/Columbus, GA.  She also became the foster mother to seven children.

"Ma Rainey made 92 recordings for Paramount in her career.  She was accompanied by greats like Louis Armstrong, Lovie Austen, Buster Bailey, Georgia Tom Dorsey and many more. " (Snow, 1996)

Ma Rainey was a trailblazer in the blues.  She died of a heart-attack in 1939, leaving us her legacy, her music  and her love for the blues.

To find out more about Ma Rainey, please check out BluesOnline authored by Joel Snow; (sorry I don't have the URL, but you can do a "search" and find it with no problem) and her biography is listed in most blues/jazz/music oriented reference publications.  Her music is still available at most large music stores.

Lea Gilmore
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©1998 Lea A. Gilmore and P.W. Fenton, All Rights Reserved.