TheOUTfront is proud to celebrate Women’s History Month by spotlighting “Mother of the Blues” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Born in Columbus Georgia in 1886, Gertrude Pridgett or “Ma” as she would later become known, is widely recognized and credited with bring authentic rural blues to popular American music during the first third of the 20th century.
“As William Barlow explained, in Looking Up at Down, Her songs were also ‘diverse, yet deeply rooted in day-to-day experiences of black people from the South. Ma Rainey’s blues were simple, straightforward stories about heart break, promiscuity, drinking binges, the odyssey of travel, the workplace and the prison road gang, magic and superstition—in short, the southern landscape of African-Americans in the Post-Reconstruction era.’”
Although she married “Pa” Rainey at 18, “Ma” Rainey did not hide her love of women. One time a party she gave in Chicago was raided by the police. Ma and some of her female guests were found in various stages of undress being intimate with each other and she was arrested for “indecency.”
In 1923, Rainey recorded “See See Rider,” a song that, as Arnold Shaw said of in Black Popular Music in America, emerged as “one of the most famous and recorded of all blues songs. (Rainey’s) was the first recording of that song, giving her a hold on the copyright, and one of the best of the more than 100 versions.”
Ma Rainey’s 1928 recording “Prove it on Me Blues,” made no secret of her feelings towards women.
“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must have been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan, Talk to gals just like any old man
‘Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me, Sure got to prove it on me.”
Rainey’s popularity and strong willed, business sense enabled her to release more than 100 songs during her career, ran two theaters, and influenced countless recording artists. On December 22, 1939, Ma Rainey died at the age of 53