Without blues, there would be no rock and roll or any of its derivatives like punk and there would definitely be no country or bluegrass. Ma Rainey is arguably, one of the first African American divas in history
Slavery was hard work and to help cope with the tiresome job of plowing the field, planting crops, harvesting and milling, enslaved African Americans sang blues to lift their spirits.
They also used field hollers to warn each other of a cruel master’s approach and while they toiled and worked the field, they were often paid not in cash but in supplies such as flour, molasses and maize. That system perpetuated a cycle of indebtedness making it tough to move.
However, the work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, arhoolies, spirituals, bloodshed and sorrow all culminated in the birth of blues music using percussion effect, flutes, drums, the banjo and guitar.
Some of its earlier and notables include Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Charley Patton, Bukka White, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Mamie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Ma Rainey.
Of the latter, Gatemouth Moore observed: “she was the ugliest woman I ever saw in my life.” But whatever Rainey lacked in beauty and facial appearance, she made up for it “with her voice and the sound she sang,” according to Moore, who himself was a blues shouter and Baptist preacher born in 1913.
Women popularized blues in the 1920s and 1930s and for Ma Rainey, she came to be known as the ‘Mother of the Blues’ and arguably, one of the first African American divas in history
Charismatic, possessing a great business sense and a voice that could bring people from laughter to tears and back again, historian Robert Philipson described her as “one of the first black divas in history.”
She spent decades touring the country, inspired generations of imitators and killed the show wherever she performed. She recorded nearly a hundred records but also her eccentricities included wearing diamond tiaras and, at least on one occasion, throwing an illegal queer orgy.
Ma Rainey who is one of the first African American divas in history was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia on April 26, 1886. By age 14, she was already a traveling performer singing cabaret in talent and tent shows around the South.
According to Sandra Lieb’s Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey, Rainey first encountered the blues at one of these shows, when a fellow performer stood up and began singing a “strange and poignant” song about a man who had left her.
Rainey was so captivated. She learned it that day and began using it as an encore in her own act.
She married William “Pa” Rainey, a traveling entertainer who specialized in comedy and vaudeville. The pair were being billed as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.”
“Like most shows that traveled the South in the 1910s, Rainey’s generally followed the harvest from city to city, and brought celebration-minded audiences a little bit of everything,” writes Atlas Obscura.
She often concluded the shows in a gold gown, a diamond tiara, rings for every finger, and a necklace made out of $20 pieces, carrying an ostrich plume in one hand and a gun in the other, and smiling a gold-capped smile.
She was so popular that poets wrote odes to her. She sometimes moaned and the audience would moan with her, according to most accounts.
From 1923, Rainey released almost 100 singles for Paramount Records, including now-classics like “Bo-Weavil Blues,” “Dead Drunk Blues,” and “Don’t Fish in My Sea.”
On one night, Rainey wrecked so much havoc that she got seven curtain calls. Aside from her electrifying performance, her sexuality was another intriguing bit. Her songs are full of infidelity, abandonment, and heartbreak.
According to Angela Davis in 2011’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Rainey’s songs are full of women who “explicitly celebrate their right to conduct themselves as expansively and even as undesirably as men,” drinking, carousing, even baiting law enforcement.
On “Prove It On Me Blues,” a 1928 song, she sings “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 tie, Makes the wind blow all the while,” a connotation to her lesbian leanings.
That year also marked Rainey’s last year of recording music. Paramount Records ended her contract. Eventually, she returned to Columbus where she opened some profitable movie theaters. She died in 1939.
Rainey was commemorated on a postage stamp in addition to having a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Six months after her death, Memphis Minnie recorded the first Ma tribute song. There is a play about her by August Wilson while she is also celebrated in Langston Hughes’ “The Blues.” Ma Rainey is indeed one of the first African American divas in history