Gertrude Pridgett (b. 4/26/1886 – d. 12/22/1939) was billed as ‘The Mother of the Blues’ and was part of the first generation of recorded blues artist. The young Pridgett started her career at 14, performing for the Springer Opera House with the local talent show called “A Bunch of Blackberries.” Two years later, she was introduced to blues at a tent show. Highly impressed by the female singer, Pridgett starting incorporating it into her act. By 1904, Pridgett had meet and married William ‘Pa’ Rainey. The two become a the duo ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’ Rainey and traveled several tent shows and cabarets, where Ma Rainey starting gaining a name for herself. In 1912, Ma was traveling with the troupe Moses Stroke and meet the young new dancer Bessie Smith. Taking her under her wing, Ma helped Smith into becoming a blues singers. Together, Ma and Smith traveled with the Fat Chappelle’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels. After divorcing Pa Rainey in 1916, Ma traveled with her own band, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets.
By the early 20s, the Harlem Renaissance movement was gaining momentum through the migration of African American from the South moving to the North. Looking for a release from the southern oppression, the ‘New Negro’ idea of creation of art and literature would serve to “uplift” the race. As well as bringing on an era of tolerance and sexual ambiguity. Many key notable figures were inclined towards members of their own sex. And with Harlem nightlife, among African Americans and whites the Jazz and Blues era was able to thrive. After Mamie Smith became the first black woman to recorded an album in 1920, there became a high demand to sign other black female artist. And in 1923, Ma was signed to Paramount Records and starting touring with the Theater Owners Bookers Association throughout the South and Midwest, singing for both black and white audiences. Ma’s sexuality was no secret and in 1925 was arrested after a police raid at party where several women in her chorus were found naked together and having sex. Bessie Smith bailed her out of jail. Afterwards, Ma wrote the song “Prove Me the Blues,” that talks about her feelings toward men and women.
Ma Rainey continued to tour until 1928 and recorded several songs before Paramount ended her contract. The record label felt that her style of Blues was not favorable anymore. Ma retired in 1935 back to her hometown. Where she devoted the remaining years of her life to the ownership of two theaters, “The Lyric” and “The Airdrome.” Ma Rainey died in 1939 from a heart attack. Her legacy remains, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. And Alice Walker used Rainey’s life and music as an inspiration for “The Color Purple.”
Ma Rainey’s “Prove Me the Blues”