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Ma Rainey


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(1886–1939), blues singer, comedienne, songwriter, and theater owner.

Born Gertrude Pridgett on 26 April 1886 in Columbus, Georgia, Ma Rainey began performing at the age of fourteen at the Springer Opera House in Columbus. In 1904 she married William “Pa” Rainey. Early in her career Rainey became leader of her own show and proved herself to be both an exciting blues performer and a capable manager. In 1923 she began her recording career with Paramount Records; she stayed with the company until 1928. Rainey's performances and records incorporated rural as well as jazz elements. She recorded with jug bands as well as with jazz greats. One of her most well-known songs, “See See Rider,” exemplifies her style. Her biographer, Sandra Lieb, characterized Rainey's style as a rich contralto filled with slurs and moans and “lisping diction” (Ma Rainey, 1959).

Throughout her career Rainey appealed most to southern audiences—both black and white. She returned south to Columbus in 1935, when she retired from active performing. At that time, Rainey purchased and operated the Lyric and Airdome theaters in Rome, Georgia.

Rainey's power as a performer and her success as a businesswoman have inspired African American writers. Sterling A. Brown's poem “Ma Rainey” is a poetic portrayal of Rainey's impact upon her poor, southern black audience. Brown's Rainey is a charismatic spirit worker who is capable of articulating her audience's joy and sorrow. For the persona of Al Young's poem “A Dance for Ma Rainey” (1969), Rainey continues to give voice to “that sick pain” he says he knows so well yet is forced to hide. In 1984 August Wilson's Broadway play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom presented Rainey as a tough manipulator of the racist recording industry. Though the play focuses on the men in the band, Rainey emerges as the wise, powerful leader of the group. She also recognizes the limitations of her authority given the presence of racism, working what authority she does have to her advantage.

Like other classic blues singers, Ma Rainey has recently come to the attention of black feminist literary and cultural critics as the embodiment of black female independence, sexuality, and creativity.

Sandra Lieb, Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey, 1981.Sandra Lieb, “Ma Rainey,” in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, 1992, pp. 958–960.Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, 1998.

Farah Jasmine Griffin

Subjects: History

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