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Ma Rainey Is Best Known as a Pioneer of the Blues. But She Broke More Than Musical Barriers

9 minute read

Ma Rainey, known as the “Mother of the Blues,” isn’t nearly as famous as the blues artists who built on her foundation, from Bessie Smith to Billie Holiday. But her overlooked legacy is being revisited thanks to the release of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a film adaptation of August Wilson’s acclaimed 1982 play that arrived on Netflix on Friday. In it, Viola Davis plays Rainey with both regal composure and pitch-black fury over the course of a sweltering afternoon recording session in 1927, as she fights for respect and artistic autonomy.

The real Rainey would be out of a job just a year later: classic blues was fading in popularity in favor of swing jazz, and the advent of talking pictures had dented the centrality of live performances. But Rainey’s impact on music, fashion and myth-making still lingers. Here are the ways in which Rainey was ahead of her time.

Rainey was a musical innovator

In the new film, Rainey’s style of blues is portrayed as archaic compared to the faster hot jazz preferred by her young band member Levee (Chadwick Boseman). While this contrast may have rung true in the late ‘20s, it was Rainey who was pioneering a new sound just a few years earlier. That style is now known as “classic blues”—but at the time, it was a unique and radical hybrid of several American forms, and Rainey was pivotal in creating and popularizing it.

Rainey was born in the 1880s in Columbus, Ga.; she performed on the vaudeville circuit for many years across the South, inheriting some performative traditions from minstrelsy and honing her outsize stage presence and comic timing. But while Rainey leaned into onstage maximalism, she was also mesmerized by the blues guitarists she saw on the road who took a more spartan, improvisatory and emotionally raw approach to their music.

So Rainey began to incorporate blues songs and structures into performances, helping to pioneer a genre that would both entertain crowds while also speaking candidly about Black life in America. This approach captured the imagination of many Black Americans at a transformative moment in which, thanks to the Great Migration, the longstanding divides between North and South, rural and urban, antique and modern were becoming eroded or blurred. Rainey’s duality made her a hit before Southern audiences as well as in Chicago where she recorded—and set a template for future waves of high-low Black musical innovation.

Rainey had a perfect voice for her new brand of music: low and gravelly, filled with both raw pathos and brassy authority. And it would likewise inspire imitators for generations to come. A young Louis Armstrong learned from Rainey while playing with her on several recordings (including “See See Rider,” a song that would later be covered by Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Janis Joplin and Old Crow Medicine Show). The gritty-voiced Joplin was open about how Rainey was one of her biggest influences, and so was Bonnie Raitt: during Rainey’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction in 1990, she said that “the fire and gusto of Ma’s singing was exceptional.”

She was a formative storyteller of the Black female experience

Rainey didn’t just popularize the genre of classic blues: she helped write it. While other blues singers of the day, like Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith, largely sang songs written by others, Rainey penned at least one third of the songs she recorded. Many of those, like “Moonshine Blues” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” would become standards of the genre to be covered time and again.

In an era dominated by white Tin Pan Alley composers, Rainey imbued her songs with the depth and diversity of her own experiences as well those of other Black women, portraying anguish, rage, euphoria, love, sexual desire and much more. Angela Davis, in her 2011 book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, wrote that Rainey’s songs are full of women who “explicitly celebrate their right to conduct themselves as expansively and even as undesirably as men.” They wield pistols, carouse until the morning, dodge the police, and sleep around for revenge. “Have you ever been drunk, slept in all your clothes? And when you wake up, feel like you want a dose?” Rainey asks in “Dead Drunk Blues.”

“She transgressed these ideas of white middle class female respectability,” Kimberly Mack, an assistant literature professor at the University of Toledo and the author of Fictional Blues: Narrative Self-Invention from Bessie Smith to Jack White, said in an interview. “Through storytelling in both the words that she sang and also her lifestyle, she fought against heteronormative ideas of what a woman should be.”

In a 1984 interview with the New York Times, Alice Walker says that the songwriting of Rainey and other blues singers was pivotal in helping to form the characters in The Color Purple. “I loved the way they dealt with sexuality, with the relationships with men,” she says. “They showed you had a whole self and you were not to succumb to being somebody else’s—as they would say—’play toy.’”

She challenged sexual norms

Rainey gleefully leaned into in the sexual revolution of the Roaring Twenties, excelling at writing and performing the types of double entendres often used at the time. (The title song of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” for instance, refers both to sex as well as the Black neighborhoods of cities across the country, including Detroit.) Rainey sang about “sissy men” and mannish women, seemingly without judgment; onstage, she performed with “uninhibited, provocative movements,” according to Sandra Lieb, author of Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey.

While very few public performers were fully out of the closet, Rainey didn’t try very hard to hide her bisexuality. In 1925, she was arrested for throwing an “indecent” and “intimate” party with a group of young women, forcing Bessie Smith—a possible lover of hers—to bail her out. A few years later, she would release “Prove It On Me Blues,” considered one of the earliest odes to lesbianism on record: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,” she sang. “They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men. It’s true I wear a collar and tie. Makes the wind blow all the while.” A cartoon ad for the song released by her record label Paramount embraces this genderbending: She wears a men’s three piece suit and fedora and mingles with two women on a corner, while a policeman watches suspiciously in the shadows.

“Her sexual braggadocio, popular in men’s blues songs, helped to create her legend as both fearless and sexually independent,” Mack says. It’s not hard to draw a line between that impulse and dominant themes running through hip-hop today.

Rainey was a fashion icon

Suits were far from the only fashion statement that Rainey made during her performing career. Long before bling was in vogue (or even a word), Rainey traveled with four trunks full of accessories which included ostrich plumes, sequins and jewelry. Onstage, she wore satin gowns and diamond tiaras; a necklace of gold coins often hung from her neck. “When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle,” Rainey’s longtime musical director Thomas A. Dorsey wrote in his unpublished memoirs.

Rainey was a shrewd entrepreneur—but still a victim of exploitation

Thanks to her showmanship, songwriting and powerful voice, Rainey earned a reputation as one of the most dynamic performers in America in the 1920s, and her tour earnings reflected that popularity. She and her band could make a sizable $350 a week on tour with the Theater Owners’ Booking Association (for comparison, George Williams and Bessie Brown could make $175, while superstar Bessie Smith raked in $600). Her ability to negotiate sizable contracts, combined with her generosity, made her a beloved bandleader among musicians. “I used to dream of joining Ma Rainey’s band because she treated her musicians so wonderfully, and she always bought them an instrument,” the jazz icon Lionel Hampton is quoted as saying in Chris Albertson’s biography of Bessie Smith, Bessie. Her shows were also some of the earliest integrated shows to take place in the Jim Crow South, according to Lieb.

But while Rainey earned a good amount of money, it wasn’t nearly the amount that she deserved. As race records flourished in the 1920s, record companies scrambled to sign Black artists while undermining them and exploiting them at every step. Executives coerced blues singers—especially those who had no experience in the recording industry—to sign away future royalties or even ownership of their songs, leaving many artists destitute after the peak of their popularity.

And this type of subterfuge was common at Rainey’s label Paramount, despite the fact that it was largely operated by a Black producer, J. Mayo Williams. Williams was known to be just as cutthroat as his white counterparts: he would later say that he subscribed to the industry maxim “screw the artist before he screws you,” and that nine out of 10 Paramount artists received no royalties regardless of their record sales. It was common practice for Williams to buy songs outright from artists for $5 to $20, keep the royalties for himself, and sit back and earn a steady living off them while the artists themselves struggled.

Rainey was fired from Paramount in 1928; it is unclear if she received royalties for her work. In 1935, she pivoted to another kind of leadership when she bought two movie halls: the Lyric and Airdome theaters, in Columbus Ga. She managed them until her death four years later.

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