Ma Rainey

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Billed as the Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. She married Will Rainey in 1904 having met him while he was passing through Columbus as a comedy singer in a minstrel show. By then she had appeared in local talent shows and she was reportedly singing blues by 1902. The couple toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels billed as "Ma" and "Pa" Rainey, "Assassinators of the Blues". Ma is noted as the first singer to use blues in minstrels acts. Her earthy, powerful voice enabled her to capture the essential quality of rural black southern life.

Although Ma had a sizeable following throughout the South, she was largely unknown outside of the region until she was recorded by Paramount Records in 1923, when she had already been performing for twenty-five years. Her recording career established audiences for her in the industrial cities of the north, which she toured in addition to her southern circuit. By this time she was also billed as Madame Rainey.

Ma was highly respected by musicians and greatly loved by her audiences. As part of her generous nature she was the foster mother to seven children. Ma often aided newcomers to her shows. Rainey coached the young Bessie Smith when she joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show around 1914. Ma Rainey was a good businesswoman and flashy dresser, who had a penchant for glittery jewlery.

Rainey retired from music in 1935 and returned to live in Columbus, Georgia where she owned and operated theaters and was active in church activities. Madame Rainey died of a heart attack December 22, 1939 in Columbus, Georgia.

Rainey made 92 recordings for Paramount in her career. She was accompanied by greats like Louie Armstrong, Lovie Austen, Buster Bailey, Georgia Tom Dorsey, Tommy Ladnier, and Don Redmon. The poor quality of the Paramount recordings limits our ability to evaluate her performances. Among her songs are Shave 'Em Dry blues, Walking Blues, and See See Rider Blues.

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Joel Snow
Created September 17, 1995
Revised October 22, 1996