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The Story of the ‘Mother of the Blues’

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(L-R) Keith David, Glynn Turman, Lillias White, Jason Dirden, and Damon Gupton.

Photo by Luke Fontana.

In a 1999 interview with The Paris Review, playwright August Wilson stated that his work was most heavily influenced by “my four Bs”: poet Jorge Luis Borges, playwright Amiri Baraka, painter Romare Bearden, and most importantly, the blues. At the center of Wilson’s first hit play and Broadway debut, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (at the Mark Taper Forum September 7 – October 16, 2016), is real-life “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey. To introduce Los Angeles to Ma Rainey before she struts the Taper’s stage this fall, we’ve pulled together the story of a great but still largely unknown American blueswoman.

Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia on April 26, 1886 and left home as a teenager to perform on the black minstrel troupe circuit around the American South. Rainey was among the first popular entertainers to include authentic blues in her minstrel and vaudeville repertoire—which earned her the moniker Mother of the Blues. Unlike many popular musicians of her day, who sang about light-hearted topics, she dealt with dark issues including abandonment, alcohol abuse, and murder in her art. But she was also famous for her performing style. According to historian Steven J. Niven in African American Lives: Ma honed a flamboyant stage persona, making her entrance in a bejeweled, floor-length gown and a necklace made of twenty-dollar gold pieces.

At the height of her popularity in the 1920s (when blues was entering the American mainstream), she performed in jazz venues throughout the United States with famous musicians including Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Between 1923 and 1928 alone, she made more than 100 recordings, including “Bo-Weevil Blues,” “See See Rider Blues,” and “Black Bottom,” from which Wilson’s play takes its name.

While touring in 1912 with the Moses Stokes Company, Rainey hired a teenage Bessie Smith as a dancer. Rainey soon took a special interest in the budding talent of the future “Empress of the Blues” and decided to help her navigate the murky waters of show business. Their friendship lasted for decades, and Smith even bailed Rainey out of jail once. And while historians believe that rumors exaggerate Rainey’s influence on Smith’s musical style, this didn’t stop HBO from chronicling it in the 2015 film Bessie. Mo’Nique, who portrayed Ma Rainey, discussed her source material in a recent interview with HBO: Ma Rainey was a woman who wasn’t willing to waver in what she believed in and she was very strong-willed, but she had a heart that would open up to the world.

Although Rainey was married twice to men (her first husband was William “Pa” Rainey), biographers and historians have depicted her as lesbian or bisexual—and her lyrics seem to support this assertion. Take 1928’s “Prove It on Me”: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends / must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.

By the mid-1930s, musical styles had changed, and Rainey retired from the stage, returning to her Georgia hometown to take care of her mother. She devoted the last years of her life to running two entertainment venues, the Lyric Theatre and Airdome, before dying of a heart attack on December 22, 1939 at the age of 53.

Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in 1983, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1992, and Georgia Women of Achievement in 1993. In 1994 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor. Rainey’s childhood home in Columbus, Georgia was recently restored and converted into the Ma Rainey House and Blues Museum and is now free and open to the public.

Read more about Ma Rainey and her music, courtesy of The New Georgia Encyclopedia and African American Lives:

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