EDITORS NOTE: This is one of the first articles by Obsidian Tea from before it was even named that. With the shift over to the new site, it had been lost to time. Besides some light edits enjoy some vintage Obsidian Tea about Ma Rainey and keep learning about her.
I’m honored to be starting biographies of famous Blues musicians as a part of obsidian. I just started to start with one of the blue screens after hearing at a lecture that “The Blues is a man thing” I found this not only disrespectful, as I chuckled with my other Black female friend, but simply highly inaccurate. Without the Blues queens of the 1920s Blues would not be what it is today. Yes, there is a legacy in the heritage of Black man traveling throughout the South playing country Blues, but it was the blues queens that got this music recorded and more profitable and respected art form. This art form which came out of Black Culture cannot ignore the influence of its female population on it. and so some of the next few posts for obsidian will be on Black female musicians, particularly those from the Blues Queen era.
Who is Ma Rainey?
Back in the 1900- through the 1920s the blues queen reigned over blues music. Mamie Smith was the first person to have a blues song recorded. This was during the time that most people focus on Jazz, but Blues was expanding and everyone started listening to race records. Ma Rainey, born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, was one of the most popular and influential blues artists of the time period. Her focus was on taking the songs written by the country blues artists and bringing them to the big stage, aka tent shows, minstrel, and vaudeville.
Rainey was known for her talent and for her voice. She had a unique voice and was open about her sexuality through her lyrics. Although she, was married to Pa Rainey, it’s clear that she was also one of the first openly LGBT blues artists. After growing up in Columbus Alabama she traveled around and learned of the Blues. She added it to her repertoire and in 1923 she recorded a record with paramount records. You can listen to it here!
Later in life!
Within a few years, Rainey went on to record over 100 recordings with paramount becoming one of the artists that helped keep them afloat. She was dubbed “The Mother of the Blues”. One of her first recordings was Boll Weevil Blues. It was a HUGE problem at the time. The boll weevil bug-infested most of the cotton crops by the 1920s. It was a huge deal particularly as the Great Depression loomed. The bug was never far from the thoughts of those who worked with cotton, mainly the Black community. Rainey tapped into that with a tune, “boll weevil blues”. She quickly became beloved in the south for her music and her blending of contemporary southern issues and the urban/northern take on blues.
She was noticeable with her gold teeth and feathers crowning her hair. The long beautiful gowns and the many diamonds and gold necklace. She moaned in her deep voice in a way that moved everyone that heard. She even worked with Bessie Smith. But no one knows how much she trained Bessie. After several years of success, she was dropped by paramount records, in 1928. Until she died in 1939, she ran to successful theaters. She is a member of the rock and roll hall of fame and the blues foundation’s hall of fame. Please read more about her and listen to her music!