Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues gave birth to an art form
Some of us are partially familiar with the idea of an Independent Artist. The advancement of Hip Hop Culture and Social Media has helped bring Indie Artists to the limelight. Whereas in most cases an artist is associated with a record label. Today we see an increase in artists becoming or staying independent while building successful careers along the way. This could indicate being an independent artist wasn’t possible in the past and is part of some sort of new wave for modern performers. Although history says that’s not necessarily the case.
In the early 19th century Ma Rainey was gaining popularity as an independent Blues vocalist. She is among the first female Blues singers and is considered a pioneer. Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in the state of Alabama. It’s reported that she was born in of September of 1882, but her official date of birth is unknown. She began performing between the ages of 12-14 in a talent show in Columbus, Georgia. Her knack for performing led her to perform in minstrel shows. These shows were mostly done by White people in blackface.
She became Ma Rainey after marrying her husband Will Rainey in 1904. They started off by forming their own group and touring tent shows. They later joined Black Entrepreneur Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company who famously toured as a tent show. Years later they left the company and continued to tour independently as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. In 1916 Rainey separated from her husband and continued touring with her own band. After spending some years touring she was discovered by an African American Race Record (music made exclusively by and for Blacks) producer. She then signed to Paramount which was one of the few companies producing Race Records at the time.
Born to Perform
As an artist, Ma Rainey sported gold teeth and a necklace with gold dollar pieces. As a performer, she had a captivating stage presence and delivery. Once signed to Paramount she began recording an extensive catalog of Blues records. In a five year span, she recorded close to 100 records. Among them is “See See Rider” which became widely popular as over 100 cover versions were made with hers being the original. The music she made was very engaging with her singing about southern life for Black people through diverse material. Rainey sang about heartbreak, sexuality, magic, feminism, and superstition among other things.
In 1924 she embarked on a tour performing for White and Black audiences with stops in the South and Midwest regions. Rainey was known as the “Mother of The Blues” and made many strides in her career. She parted ways with Paramount in 1924 but went on to perform and tour through the early 1930s. Around 1935, following the death of her mother and sister she went back to Columbus, Georgia retiring from the music business. Shortly after she began running three theatres, the Lyric, the Airdrome, and the Liberty Theatre, which is what she did until her death in 1939. She died of a heart attack at age 57.
Ma Rainey is credited for making great contributions to Blues and inspiring celebrated poets. The legacy she built continues to live on as she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Her contributions are so impactful that in 2004 her song “See See Rider” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and added to the National Recording Registry. As of 2017, the Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts partially named in her honor is located in Columbus, Georgia.
Legacies take a long time to build but they only live on if we carry them with us through time. Ma Rainey is recognized as a staple in Blues and noted as one of the first female Blues singers. Not only did she make history, but in the early 19th century her innovative style was paving the way for many who would follow in her footsteps. Even in 2019, the blues lives on.
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