Netflix’s recent star-studded release, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, adapted from the Pulitzer-winning dramatist August Wilson’s 1982 play, brings one of the US’s first professional blues singers back into the cultural sphere. The larger than life, gold tooth-wearing Ma Rainey, famed “Mother of the Blues”, is played with regal poise by Viola Davis, who fires off pointed retorts from beneath an impenetrable mask of make-up.
Known for her thunderous, moaning voice, sharp comic timing and compelling stage presence, Rainey was a pioneer of early blues music who opened the way for many rebellious, unconventional musicians who followed her. As blues laid the foundations for much of Western music, it is not overblown to say that, without Rainey, pop culture as we know it would be considerably different. But despite her influence on popular music and her fascinating story, Rainey has not always been the household name she deserves to be. A film like this was long overdue.
The details of Rainey’s upbringing are hazy. Her parents, Ella and Thomas Pridgett, named her Gertrude. Though Rainey repeatedly claimed she was born in 1886 in Columbus, Georgia, a 1900 census states she was born in Alabama in 1882. She started performing when a teenager, singing and dancing in a local Columbus stage show called A Bunch of Blackberries, and travelled on the road with vaudeville acts, incorporating comedy and music. In 1904 she married fellow performer Will Rainey; together, they billed themselves as “Ma and Pa Rainey” and toured with the popular variety troupe the Rabbit’s Foot Company.
Rainey claimed that while playing a tent show in Missouri in 1902 she overheard a young woman playing a sorrowful song about a lost love. Haunted by the melody, Rainey began performing the song as her encore; when asked what kind of song she was singing, she replied “the blues”. Though the story is contested by music historians, the legend has stuck.
But whether or not Rainey coined the phrase, her role in the evolution of the blues is indisputable. Though she had no formal music training, she was respected by many of the jazz musicians she worked with, including a young Louis Armstrong and Thomas A Dorsey, the musical director on some of her best-known recordings, who described her in his unpublished memoirs as a “natural-born artist”. Her voice was gravelly and deep, able to veer from satirical inflections to pained cries in an instant. It was a voice made to sing the blues, and has lived on in songs such as “Moonshine Blues”, “Bo Weavil Blues” and “See See Rider”.
In the early 20th century, blues was mainly popularised by vaudeville stars such as Ida Cox, Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters, who sang other people’s songs in their acts. Rainey was one of the few stars to write many of her own songs, covering themes of betrayal, lust, sexuality, depression, revenge, drinking and infidelity. In doing so, as Angela Davis writes in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Rainey was able to “illuminate the politics of gender and sexuality in working-class black communities”.
“You don’t sing to feel better,” Rainey once said. “You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.” Her songs reflected the lives of her audience members – and they loved her for it. “She possessed her listeners,” Dorsey wrote, “they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the blues with her.” After separating from her husband, Rainey began touring with her own band, the Georgia Smart Set. They became one of the highest paid acts on the road, earning $350 a week – thousands in today’s money.
On tour, Rainey discovered a young Bessie Smith performing as a chorus girl, and became her mentor. The two shared roof-shaking vocals, stage presence and a love of risqué lyrics. Smith’s star rose quickly and she became the “Empress of the Blues”, leading to a friendly rivalry with Rainey.
Like Smith, the “Mother of the Blues” was often explicit about her bisexuality (it was rumoured the two were also lovers). After a police raid in 1925, Rainey was arrested for throwing an “indecent” and “intimate” party with a group of young women, and Smith had to bail her out of prison. But rather than retreat after the incident, Rainey embraced the moment in the song “Prove it on me Blues”, in which she sings: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.”
Her bawdy humour and use of double entendre – the film title Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which comes from Rainey’s song of the same name, refers to the “black bottom” dance as well as to the singer’s body – was revolutionary. According to Kimberly Mack, the author of Fictional Blues, Rainey rebelled against restrictive ideas of female respectability: “Through storytelling in both the words that she sang and also her lifestyle, she fought against heteronormative ideas of what a woman should be.” It is not difficult to draw connections between Rainey’s declarations of sexual satisfaction and themes of sexual independence in hip hop today.
Rainey was hugely popular in the American South and a shrewd entrepreneur, but little could prepare her for the exploitative nature of the recording industry. In 1923 Rainey signed to Paramount and made more than 100 recordings for the label. But despite the demand for her records, she was dropped when male guitarists and singers became the face of blues music. Rainey continued to tour and perform around the country, but by 1935 Paramount had gone bankrupt, and her records fell out of print. She effectively retired from performing and moved to Georgia, where she worked as a theatre proprietor before she died of a heart attack in 1939.
Rainey’s name is still spoken thanks to those black artists who refuse to let it be forgotten. The singer Memphis Minnie wrote a tribute song for her in 1940; Alice Walker cited her as inspiration for characters in The Colour Purple; the 1960s Black Arts Movement held her up as a beacon. Rainey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Her influence is everywhere, but is perhaps heard most often in the voices of Janis Joplin, Brittany Howard and Rhiannon Giddens. Though, for many black artists, the struggle to receive recognition continues, in Rainey, at least, a new generation can find a story of rebellion and triumph.
[see also: Bowie the bellwether]
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war