Remembering Ma Rainey, The Mother Of Blues

Remembering Ma Rainey, The Mother Of Blues

Was Ma Rainey just a spoiled, pugnacious woman who committed adultery in the name of sexual freedom? Not at all.

LylaUpdated: Wednesday, April 03, 2024, 12:15 PM IST
article-image

Gertrude Pridgett AKA ‘Ma Rainey.' The mother of blues. A robe made of fine silk, a diamond tiara on the head, the perpetual sullenness in the intoxicated eyes, a shiny black face drenched in sweat after performing a three hour long concert, a necklace of dollar bills dangling from a large body, and a gold tooth that sparkled brightly when she sang or laughed! Like a firefly on a black rose under a moonless sky.

A movie called 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' was released on Amazon Prime in 2020. Many wondered if there really was such a woman as Ma Rainey after watching it, and if so, who she was, and why, after all these years, Ma Rainey somehow came back into the limelight. But most of us still don't know who she really was. She was born in 1886 in Georgia. Ma began singing in vaudeville and minstrel shows from the age of 12. It was a type of entertainment popular mainly in the US in the early 20th century, featuring a mixture of burlesque comedy and interspersed songs by black people. A circus of music, dance and comedy that would roam around different cities with its theatre companies.

In 1900, Ma performed at the Springer Opera House with the troupe Bunch of Blackberries and it was a source of great pride as the famous writer Oscar Wilde was one of the hosts of this event. In 1904 she married William 'Pa' Rainey and they continued the journey together as 'Ma' Rainey and 'Pa' Rainey. In 1923 the Paramount Records signed Ma taking her immense popularity into account. Her queenly attire and unabashed singing, the courage to use the words and the expressions not commonly used in high society, defying the dominance of the delicate and feminine voice of the Victorian era, performing with a tobacco pipe in one hand and rarely a pistol in the other, that masculine rasp in her voice.. everything was raw, mesmerizing and novel. She deserved Paramount's trust a thousand percent. The vaudeville performer proved to be an excellent playback singer too. Ma Rainey's music was as bold as her sexuality. Rumors spread that she had kidnapped a legendary blues singer (Bessie Smith) and made her sing in her theatre company. In 1925 Ma Rainey was found half-naked at a party with some of her 'friends' and had to go to jail and was rescued by Bessie Smith. Bessie and Ma's love affair was hotly debated. Ma was married, in addition to it she was black, hence there was a lot of criticism of her behaviour from the society. Ma simply wrote a song to put a fullstop to the controversy and it was called 'Prove it on me blues’. Ma said,

‘’Don't you say I do it, ain't nobody caught me

You sure got to prove it on me.

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,

They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men!''

Even though Ma and Pa divorced in 1916, the once-married Ma says, "I was with my friends last night because I don't like men!" Very cleverly, Ma admits where she was, but as it comes naturally from a divorced woman no one can put a finger on it.

The society back then was not acquainted with the concept of bisexuality like today and though everybody secretly had an idea about what the deal was, it was a taboo and not something to be discussed openly. To distract the listener, Ma, who herself wore silk gowns, gold jewelry and extravagant make-up all the time, said, 

It's true I wear a collar and a tie,

Makes the wind blow all the while

She admits that she wears a tie and a collared shirt like a man and somewhere the masculine essence in her persona comes out. There's actually just one photo of her in a tie suit to this date (which was especially taken to promote the same song and gained massive attention- not surprised here! The image is available on Google.) She deftly portrays herself as a man and convinces how natural it is for her to be with girls. Ma was the voice of the suppressed women who had to hide their true identity for they feared the world. Her voice was, in fact, the harbinger of modern feminism and liberation. The song struck a chord with the blacks but it shocked the white elites of America. Listening to this song and selling its records was banned in some places.

So was Ma Rainey just a spoiled, pugnacious woman who committed adultery in the name of sexual freedom? Not at all. She was the first woman to coin the word 'blues'! Around 1912, while traveling for a minstrel show, she met a girl in Missouri who sang a very sad song for Ma. The song was about a miserable man who had left his beloved. It touched Ma's heart and she immediately learned it and started performing it in her shows. She said, ‘’This genre of song was new to everyone. Whenever someone asked me what I was singing, I would say I was singing the blues!'' Perhaps the phrase ‘Feeling blue’ is the root of this word. After 1928, Paramount cancelled their contract. Ma Rainey, who once earned $350 a week from mere theatre tours, was labelled as 'outdated'. What is still disputed is the amount of royalties Paramount paid her during her lifetime for more than 100 songs that she sang over five years. Ma and Pa had adopted a son, Danny, who accompanied them on theatre tours, but was rarely mentioned during Ma's downfall. She was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1983. In 2023, Ma was honoured with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Her songs became 'national hits' after her death but what happened to her after Paramount snubbed her disdainfully? In 1935 she returned to her home in Columbus, Georgia. She owned three theatre companies for four years and died of a heart attack in 1939. Ma surely lived like a tigress but if you listen to her songs like ‘Tough luck blues’ or ‘Runaway blues’, you’ll realize that no matter how ahead of time she was, no matter how revolutionary she was, she was ultimately a black woman of the 20th century and she suffered everything that came those women of that time. The only difference is, most of those just put up with it mutely while Ma Rainey lived and died as The Mother of the Blues.

RECENT STORIES

Celebrating 197th Birth Anniversary Of Mangal Pandey: The Man Who Started The Indian War Of...

Celebrating 197th Birth Anniversary Of Mangal Pandey: The Man Who Started The Indian War Of...

Butter Garlic Naan, Tikka & Tandoori Among The 100 Best Dishes In The World, Check Out The Top 10...

Butter Garlic Naan, Tikka & Tandoori Among The 100 Best Dishes In The World, Check Out The Top 10...

FPJ 96th Anniversary: From Conservation Of Konark Sun Temple To Lakhuji Jadhavrao’s Chhatri, Arun...

FPJ 96th Anniversary: From Conservation Of Konark Sun Temple To Lakhuji Jadhavrao’s Chhatri, Arun...

7 Signs Your Boss Is Not Happy With You

7 Signs Your Boss Is Not Happy With You

Shanaya Kapoor Drips In 100,000 Pearls Saree

Shanaya Kapoor Drips In 100,000 Pearls Saree