They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ‘cause that’s a way of understanding life.
– Ma Rainey
Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett, the greatest blues singer you’ve never heard of, was born either in Alabama or Georgia, either in 1882 or 1886. She went on to become Ma Rainey, the Mother of the Blues: a singer, mentor, trailblazer and cultural icon – and the inspiration for the title character of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, now playing in the Lyttelton Theatre.
Ma Rainey’s date of birth is disputed: she claimed to have been born in 1886, though some census information suggests she may have been slightly older. We can forgive her any lies about her age: by the time she was in her early teens, she was already performing in talent shows in her hometown, Columbus, Georgia, going on to join the Rabbit Foot Minstrels with her husband, Will Rainey (known as ‘Pa’), in 1906. The word ‘minstrel’ may now bring to mind white men in black-face and racist stereotypes; however, in the early 20th century, it was common for black artists to perform as minstrels.
Ma Rainey and her husband went on to become Rainey and Rainey and then The Assassinators of the Blues, before Rainey forged a considerable career of her own. In 1923, just three years after Mamie Smith became the first black female musician to be recorded, Rainey signed to Paramount and laid down eight songs in Chicago, the setting for August Wilson’s play. Her recording career was to last just five years, but she was prolific, with almost 100 songs. She worked with Louis Armstrong, and created a powerful back-catalogue of her own, including Bo-weevill Blues, Moonshine Blues and, of course, Black Bottom.
As important as her music was her mentorship of younger artists and of one in particular: Bessie Smith. If Rainey was the mother of the blues, Smith was its empress. She remains, to this day, one of the most important female blues singers of all time, in no small part due to Rainey’s influence. One story even says that Rainey kidnapped Smith, forced her to join the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and taught her to sing the blues.
The Bessie Smith story might not be true, but it says something about the courageous, trailblazing woman that Ma Rainey was. Her bisexuality was an open secret, and one that she did not shy away from in her lyrics. The following, from Prove It On Me Blues, refers to an event in 1925, when she was arrested for hosting a lesbian orgy with members of her chorus:
They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me;
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must’ve been women, 'cause I don’t like no men.
The sentiment, coming as it does from 1925, is undoubtedly bold. Coming from a black woman in the southern United States, it shows even more remarkable courage and daring.
All the above has made Ma Rainey the icon that she is today – she is even name-checked alongside Beethoven in Bob Dylan’s Tombstone Blues. She has been recognised in the Grammy Hall of Fame, on a US postage stamp and in HBO film Bessie, played by singer Mo’nique.
On 26 January, she will come to the Lyttelton stage, played by Sharon D Clarke, in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In the play, she wrestles with her white producers for control of her music: a powerful, bold fight against incredibly difficult odds. Of Ma Rainey, we would expect nothing less.