Who is Ma Rainey?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

In the history of blues performers, Gertrude Pridgett, more commonly known as Ma Rainey deserves a very special place. She was one of the early blues singers, and one of the first to record her music. She is referenced by many singers who came after her as an inspiration, and had a direct influence on Blues singer, Bessie Smith, who she worked with and trained.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Ma Rainey was born in 1886 in Georgia. There is some dispute about her age, and she may actually have been born in 1882 according the US census. She heard a blues singer perform for the first time in 1902, although the name "blues" had not yet been invented. Ma Rainey claims she invented the name blues though this matter remains in dispute. The performance Rainey witnessed convinced her she could also sing the blues, quite rightly, and she quickly switched her style to be a blues singer.

In 1904, William Rainey, a member of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, married young Gertrude and convinced her to join the vaudeville company. Together the two were known as Pa and Ma Rainey, and they frequently performed together. Though many people saw the show, what really cemented Ma’s fame was her decision to record over 100 songs from 1923-1928. These recordings feature other well-known jazz and blues names like Louis Armstrong.

The Rainey couple’s music grew steadily more popular, until shortly after the onset of the Great Depression. Though Ma Rainey had shown herself to be an adaptable performer, her music style fell out of popularity, primarily because the listening audience preferred male singers. This was not an adaptation Rainey could make and she retired in 1933. She died six years later, and though her career was short, her music has lasted.

Some of her best and most popular songs can still be found on Blues collections on CD, and on CDs devoted only to Ma Rainey. A few songs quite notable in her career include, Jealous Hearted Blues, Yonder Come the Blues, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Don’t Fish in My Sea. There are many more that are inspirational, and have particularly influenced folk artists such as Bob Dylan long after Rainey’s death.

Rainey earned the title "Mother of the Blues," and her protégée, Bessie Smith, was often called the "Empress of the Blues." In the 1980s, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame and in 1990 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored her with an induction, since blues directly influenced the development of rock. She also was featured on a 1994 US postage stamp.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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