This year’s celebration of Pride Month wrapped up this week and we wanted to highlight an important figure in the history of blues music whose story has often been overlooked. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was hailed as the “Mother of the Blues” and was a bisexual Black singer who has and continues to inspire generations of musicians. Read on for articles about her life that we found in newspapers, including in the Chronicling America historic newspapers collection.*
While there are many gaps in her story, we do know Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia and her parents were minstrel performers. She expressed a natural singing talent at an early age and began performing with traveling vaudeville acts in tent shows around the turn of the century.
Around this time, she met comedian, dancer and vocalist Will Rainey, whom she wed in 1904. They toured as a duo with a variety of traveling Black minstrel troupes, billing themselves as Ma and Pa Rainey. The Raineys joined F.S. Wolcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels, Moses Stokes Company, and Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza. Rainey then started her own show, billed as Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set.
At one point Rainey (sometimes known as “Madam” or “Madame” Rainey) separated from her husband and relocated to Chicago. There she recorded her first albums with Paramount Records. At different points in her career, she connected with Bessie Smith, who later became her mentee, and was affiliated with other great performers, such as Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Mamie Smith, and Jelly Roll Morton. Both Rainey and Smith sang about same-sex relationships in their music.
Rainy was known for her powerful voice, spirited disposition, impressive phrasing, and a unique “moaning” style of singing. Her commanding stage presence was complete with her gold teeth, unmistakable clothing, and flashy dangling jewelry. It was on stage in packed venues that she connected deeply to her adoring audiences. She performed until 1935 and died on December 22, 1939. Characterized as an immortal figure in blues music, her 1924 recording of “See See Rider Blues,” accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004.
Additional Library of Congress resources:
- Listen to Black poet Sterling Allen Brown reading his tribute to his friend, Ma Rainey.
- Read more about Chicago Blues in this NLS Music Notes blog post.
- Check out the book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, by Angela Y. Davis.
- Find more of her records in the Library’s online catalog, including The Mother of the Blues, 1923-1928.
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
I am 63 years young. When I was a little boy, my father nicknamed my baby sister Ma Rainy. To this day friends our age still call her Ma Rainy.
I am looking for a print I saw on Antiques Road Show. It was a print “Brown Skin Mama 1970” , also on the print was “Georgia Smart Set”. I believe it was an advertisement for a play/movie. It was about Ma Rainey. Do you have any information on where I could this print?
Thank you, Kathy! I will refer you to my fabulous colleagues in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Reading Room. You can submit a question here.
I watched Bessie with Queen Latifah playing the title character and I loved it. It was a wonderful work of art.I bought the dvd and watch it all the time now. I love the way they were able to take you back in time and show you the way life was then. Simply perfect. Excellent story from rags to riches and then such a horrible death.