NY Times Obit: Overlooked No More: Ma Rainey, the ‘Mother of the Blues’

Re-posted from the New York Times Obit page, June 12, 2019.

With her unapologetic lyrics, Rainey proudly proclaimed her bisexuality and helped to mainstream black female narratives in a musical style that later became a nationwide craze.Ma Rainey around 1923. Often called the “Mother of the Blues,” she developed a reputation for her energizing, straight-talking performances and full-throated vocals even before the blues became a nationwide craze.CreditDonaldson Collection/Getty Images

Ma Rainey around 1923. Often called the “Mother of the Blues,” she developed a reputation for her energizing, straight-talking performances and full-throated vocals even before the blues became a nationwide craze.CreditCreditDonaldson Collection/Getty Images

June 12, 2019

Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. This month we’re adding the stories of important L.G.B.T.Q. figures.

By Giovanni Russonello

Ma Rainey did not make the first blues recording; that distinction belongs to Mamie Smith, the vaudevillian who recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920. And Rainey did not achieve the monumental acclaim of Bessie Smith, her mentee and, later, friendly rival.

But it’s possible that neither of these figures would have sung the way they did without the influence of Rainey.

Often called the “Mother of the Blues,” she was the first entertainer to successfully bridge the divide between vaudeville — the cabaret-style shows that developed out of minstrelsy in the mid-1800s, and catered largely to white audiences — and authentic black Southern folk expression.

Even before the recording industry took off in the 1920s and the blues became a nationwide craze, she had developed a national reputation for her energizing, straight-talking performances and full-throated vocals. As the biographer Sandra Lieb observed in “Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey” (1983), by combining a black folk style with techniques learned on the vaudeville stage, Rainey “offered to whites a glimpse into black culture far less obscured by white expectations, and offered to blacks a more direct affirmation” of their cultural power.

In the process, Rainey helped to mainstream narratives of black female autonomy that had little to do with the Victorian norms of white society. Partly that meant speaking candidly about her attraction to women as well as men. In “Prove It on Me Blues,”accompanied by a jug band, she sings defiantly:

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.

They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.

It’s true I wear a collar and a tie,

Makes the wind blow all the while.

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

You sure got to prove it on me.

A Georgia native, Rainey began her career on the tent-show circuit, traveling with performance troupes that set up their own stages in towns across the South and Midwest, honing her own gregarious brew of music, comedy and social commentary.

The characters in Rainey’s songs rarely allowed themselves to become dependent on a male partner, or any agent of the law. “Far more typical,” the scholar and activist Angela Davis wrote in the book “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” (1998), “are songs in which women explicitly celebrate their right to conduct themselves as expansively and even as undesirably as men.”

In Rainey’s blues — many of which she wrote herself — even the most jilted narrator was unlikely to fall into despair. In “Oh Papa Blues,” after detailing her grievances against a neglectful lover, Rainey turns on a dime, steeling herself to exact revenge.

Oh, papa, think when you away from home

You just don’t want me now, wait and see

You’ll find some other man makin’ love to me, now

Papa, papa, you ain’t got no mama now.

With a mouthful of gold teeth, richly dark skin and flashy jewelry dangling about her, Rainey cast a striking figure, with a ruggedly powerful voice and lavish stage presence to match.

“When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle,” the pianist and composer Thomas A. Dorsey, who was the musical director on some of her best-known recordings, wrote in his unpublished memoirs.

“She was in the spotlight,” he added. “She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the blues with her.”

Sterling Brown, the poet and pioneering black literary critic, put it even more directly: “Ma really knew these people; she was a person of the folk.”

She was also a celebrity. Of the nearly 100 songs she recorded in the 1920s, many were national hits, and some have become part of the American musical canon. Her 1924 recording of “See See Rider,” on which she is accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004.

We know that Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett, the second of five children to Ella (Allen) and Thomas Pridgett. But beyond that, details are sketchy. Rainey often said she was born on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Ga., but a 1900 census entry lists her birthplace as Alabama and her birth date as September 1882.

When her father died in 1896, her mother went to work for the Central Railway of Georgia. Gertrude began singing professionally as a teenager, making her first public performance in 1900 at the Springer Opera House in Columbus, where she joined a stage show called “The Bunch of Blackberries.” She was soon traveling with vaudeville acts.

It was while on the road, in Missouri in 1902, that she first heard a country blues singer. A young woman came up to the troupe’s tent with a guitar, singing a song of heartbreak with a twisting, ghostly melody. Rainey found herself so struck by the tune’s mysterious pathos that she began singing the song as an encore at her own shows.

Traveling throughout the rural South, Rainey began to hear similar songs, and she worked more country blues into her repertoire. The blues style — based on a pentatonic scale with an African-derived blue note, and generally following a loose, repetitious form — was such a natural fit for her that at one point she said she had invented the term “blues,” although most historians consider that claim to be an exaggeration.

In 1904, Rainey married the comedian, dancer and vocalist Will Rainey, and they toured as a duo with a variety of minstrel troupes, billing themselves as Ma and Pa Rainey. In the mid-1910s, the couple joined Moses Stokes’s tent show, then hit the road for a few years with Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza, which touted the couple as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.” For a time they performed with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, perhaps the most esteemed troupe of the day.

At some point during her travels, Rainey became acquainted with a young Bessie Smith, who was then performing as a chorus girl, and became Smith’s mentor. Not only were they both virtuoso singers; they shared a love of bold, risqué lyrics, and each proudly proclaimed her bisexuality. During one tour, after Rainey was caught by the Chicago police in the midst of a sexual dalliance with some of her female dancers, it was Smith who came to bail her out of jail.

Rainey separated from her husband in 1916 and began touring with her own show, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set, which included a chorus line of male and female dancers. (She later married a younger man, though details of that relationship are scarce.) Rainey often closed her set with “See See Rider,” a lament for a lover whose primary romantic partner comes back into the picture. “I’m goin’ away, baby, won’t be back till fall/Lawd, lawd, lawd,” she sings on the recorded version. “Goin’ away, baby, won’t be back till fall./If I find me a good man, I won’t be back at all.”

Like many tent shows, Rainey’s often holed up for the winter in New Orleans. In the off-season she became friends with a number of the city’s leading jazz musicians, including Armstrong, Kid Ory and King Oliver.Rainey in about 1924 with Thomas A. Dorsey, right, with whom she assembled a touring band that could play both homespun blues and written sheet music — an early example of the archetypal jazz musician’s skill set.CreditJP Jazz Archives/Redferns

Rainey in about 1924 with Thomas A. Dorsey, right, with whom she assembled a touring band that could play both homespun blues and written sheet music — an early example of the archetypal jazz musician’s skill set.CreditJP Jazz Archives/Redferns

In 1923, Rainey traveled to Chicago to record for the first time for the Paramount Record Company. Riding the breakout success of these recordings, she and Dorsey assembled a touring band that could play both homespun blues and written sheet music — an early example of the archetypal jazz musician’s skill set.

Between 1923 and 1928, with “race records” by and for the black community becoming a thriving industry, Rainey went on to record no fewer than 92 songs for the small Wisconsin-based Paramount label. But Paramount had a low budget compared with major outfits like Okeh and Columbia (for which Bessie Smith cut her most famous sides), and Rainey’s recordings were of mediocre sound quality.

When Paramount went bankrupt in the 1930s, they fell out of print. Other labels recirculated parts of her catalog, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that most of her recordings received a proper reissue, on the Milestone and Biograph labels.

She lived for much of the 1920s and ’30s in Chicago, performing in concert and at house parties with jazz musicians like Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, and touring the country often. In 1935, Rainey returned to Georgia and effectively retired, though she worked for a few years as a theater proprietor.

Ma Rainey died of a heart attack on Dec. 22, 1939. Ever since, paeans to her have been a motif of black music and letters. The blues guitarist and vocalist Memphis Minnie recorded a tribute to her in 1940, telling the story of her life and cataloging the names of her famous songs. Sterling Brown’s poem “Ma Rainey” evoked the thrill of her performances, and the validation that she offered to black listeners of the era.

O Ma Rainey,

Sing yo’ song;

Now you’s back

Whah you belong,

Git way inside us,

Keep us strong.

Even in the late 1960s, at the height of the Black Arts Movement and long after her death, Rainey continued to hold a special significance in the heart of black America as an early ambassador of empowered sexuality and personal liberation. The poet Al Young wrote “A Dance for Ma Rainey” in 1969, proclaiming: “I’m going to be just like you, Ma/Rainey this monday morning.”

Later in the poem, he pledged:

I’m going to hover in the corners

of the world, Ma

& sing from the bottom of hell

up to the tops of high heaven

Spring 2019 session

Welcome!

This study group begins Friday, March 8, 2019 and covers the 10 plays of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, one play for every decade in the twentieth century. Over ten successive weeks, we will explore a wide range of themes: the Great Migration; the plantation system in the post-Reconstruction South; mass incarceration; the recording industry; urban renewal and gentrification; Civil Rights and protest movements; political, social and business reform throughout the century. We investigate these and other themes through the lens of a small urban community in Pittsburgh, their daily successes and failures across the decades. We discuss themes of family relationships, conflict avoidance, and conflict resolution through those same lenses as we explore the structure of drama. We will read the plays chronologically, in order of decade.

Week 1: March 8, 2019 – Gem of the Ocean (2003)

Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, the play features a man whose small crime has had deadly consequences for another man. Feeling guilty, he comes seeking the spiritual healing of Aunt Ester. A recurring character in Wilson’s plays, Ester claims to be 285 years old and is the kind matriarch of her household in Pittsburgh.

Week 2:  March 15, 2019 –Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)

Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.

Week 3:  March 22, 2019 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)

Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-cycle play not set in Pittsburgh), Ma Rainey examines racism in the history of black musicians and white producers, and the themes of art and religion.

Week 4:  March 29, 2019 – The Piano Lesson (1986)

Synopsis: Set in 1936 and named after a painting by Romare Bearden, the play follows the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household. A brother and a sister have different ideas about what to do with their piano, a family heirloom. Sell it to purchase land their enslaved ancestors once toiled upon, or keep the piano, which includes carved depictions of two distant relatives.

Week 5:  April 5, 2019 – Seven Guitars (1995)

Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. He struggles to right wrongs and make his way back to Chicago. Black manhood is a theme of the play and a rooster is used in to symbolize it.

Week 6:  April 12, 2019 – Fences (1984)

Synopsis: In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbage man. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory, who like his father, is a gifted athlete

Week 7: April 19, 2019 – Two Trains Running (1990)

Synopsis: Set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline. The restaurant owner, Memphis, worries what will happen when the city comes to claim the building through eminent domain. A young activist, Sterling, tries to organize protests and rallies that can help save the restaurant, but Memphis is not so supportive.

Week 8: April 26, 2019 – Jitney (1979)

Synopsis: Set in an unofficial taxi station threatened with demolition in 1977, Jitney explores the lives and relationships of drivers, highlighting conflicts between generations and different concepts of legacy and identity.

Week 9: May 3, 2019 – King Hedley II (1991)

Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. The play features some characters from Seven Guitars.

Week 10:  May 10, 2019 – Radio Golf (2005)

Synopsis: Set in 1990 Pittsburgh, this play concluded Wilson’s Century Cycle and is the last play he completed before his death. The home of Aunt Ester (the setting of the cycle’s first play Gem of the Ocean) is threatened with demolition that will make way for real estate development in the depressed area. Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. History and legacy challenge personal aspirations and ideas of progress.

Warm-up reading list for the Cycle

In no particular order

Bryer, Jackson R. and Hartig, Mary C., eds. Conversations with August Wilson. Interviews and conversations that provide enlightening background on the plays.

Campbell, Mary Schmidt. An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden. Bearden’s collages inspired at least two plays in the cycle.Wilson often cites Bearden’s influence.

Jones, Leroi. Blues People. One of Wilson’s major influences, along with Bearden, Borges, and the Blues itself.

Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Places the migration to Pittsburgh and to the Hill District in historical context.

Whitaker, Mark. The Untold Story of Smoketown: The Other Great Black Renaissance. Everything you ever wanted to know about Pittsburgh. Lots of context for the plays in the cycle.

Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Blackman in America. Wilson credits Muhammad with supplying the first mythology (origin myths)  for black Americans.

Temple, Riley. Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed. Short critical analyses of each play in chronological order. Recommended for the course but not required.

Bigsby, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson. Essays on each play and on recurrent themes. All the top Wilson scholars are represented.

Shannon, Sandra. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Extensive essays on the first six plays in the order written, plus an unabridged interview with August Wilson makes this volume a plus! I reference this volume often in discussions.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. August Wilson: A Literary Companion. A dictionary-type listing of all the characters and themes of the first nine plays (published prior to the completion of Radio Golf) along with a multi-generational timeline of all the events in the plays. Very helpful.


YouTube Playlists for each play

Jitney:   https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZapfkM43eU0KVt5QWBxdlK

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXb3E8p4pv7MmgNPoDUlqCB7

Fences: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYPmItHweBOyfAwDJ-x1qwO

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaWJ0J5IXBUUpwoVe-klNmc

The Piano Lesson: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYBNIkZcDVM0y_xff-c1zCi

Two Trains Running: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZOBWNf_EwGXjngVAQKrvbC

Seven Guitars: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYQzNGKFRhdwbLYZ1mz6hLK

King Hedley II: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaqsHCCMTcpz7qemeLe19xv

Gem of the Ocean: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbpLBU1gTGwfhRV207HTXPb

Radio Golf: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbZDGZ3NZTVicN5q755bnrd