Black Hero of the Week: Ma Rainey

Amy Julian

When many think of influential blues singers and musicians, most of the predominant characters mentioned are men. Too often, women’s influence on blues music is lost amongst the bellowing guitars and solemn hums. But speaking of the blues genre would be pointless without the mention of the woman considered to be the “Mother of the Blues,”, Ma Rainey.

Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridget (later Ma Rainey when she married fellow blues musician William Rainey) was born in 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. Growing up in a time of strong racial oppression and segregation, Ma Rainey sought solace in listening and performing music. She began her musical career with a local vaudeville group called the Rabbit Foot Minstrels at the young age of fourteen. Traveling around Georgia, she performed minstrel shows and reveled in the limelight. In 1902, after hearing a young girl sing a blues-style tune, Ma Rainey quickly adopted that style and created a new branch of “the blues,” which is now what most associate with the genre.

Decked out in her feathers, and gold -coin necklace, Ma Rainey would travel from show to show, filling the room with her electric stage presence and powerful voice. Once married to William “Pa” Rainey, Ma became a household name while performing with her husband as part of the “Rainey & Rainey, Assassinators of Blues” duo. Rainey even served as a mentor for such future stars as Bessie Smith, who performed and studied the blues with Rainey before continuing on her own.

Ma Rainey signed with Paramount Records and made her first full full-length record in 1923. Throughout most of the twenties she continued to use her talent to collaborate with Louis Armstrong, among many of theother big-named artists at of the time. She was on her way to becoming the highest highest-paid female African African-American performer, until the 1930’s when the blues genre was not as lucrative for women as it had been in the Roaring Twenties.

Long after her death in 1939, Ma Rainey’s influence in the blues community lived on in the hearts and souls of blues artists who used her creative and unique sound to create their own masterpieces. In 1983, Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. She was simultaneously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, alongside her friend and co-performer, Louis Armstrong.

Ma Rainey has been an important influence in shaping the genre of blues music; she has given many performers the courage to experiment with new styles and sounds and has contributed greatly to the popularity of a genre that had been once underground.

Hums or hymns?