Sanctuary celebrates a musical icon with profound influence on American blues music and the women who followed in her footsteps. A true and fearless trailblazer, Ma Rainey is a perfect fit for Black History Month as we highlight the significant contributions of Black women in all fields and industries.
© Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
Blues pioneer "Ma" Rainey (Gertrude Pridgett Rainey) was born and raised in Columbus, Georgia. As Chuck Berry was to the Beatles, so was Ma Rainey to Bessie Smith and an entire musical realm. She is a true trailblazer and stylistic godparent of profound influence. Often called the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey was known for her deep-throated voice and mesmerizing stage presence that drew packed audiences and sold hit records in the early twentieth century. Also a songwriter, her lyrics and melodies reflected her experiences as an independent, openly bisexual African-American woman. She made her debut with the Bunch of Blackberries revue at the Springer Opera House in Columbus. She then began singing with traveling vaudeville acts in tent shows, honky-tonks, and carnivals.
It was on the performance circuit that she met comedian, singer, and dancer Will “Pa” Rainey, and the two married in 1904. They formed a double act (“Ma and Pa Rainey”) and toured with various African-American minstrel troupes and vaudeville groups, most notably the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Rainey signed a recording contract with Paramount Records in 1923, making her one of the earliest recorded blues musicians. Between 1923 and 1928, she recorded almost 100 records, many of them national hits that are now part of the American musical canon. Her 1924 recording of “See See Rider Blues” (for which she was accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong) was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004.
Some interesting facts...
Rainey and her Georgia Jazz Band (L to R per Getty Image crediting, 1923):
Ed Pollack, Albert Wynn, Thomas A. Dorsey, Ma Rainey, Dave Nelson, and Gabriel Washington
© Getty Images