Making Ma Rainey

She changed popular music forever, but the “Mother of the Blues” is not the household name she deserves to be.


Netflix’s recent star-studded release, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, adapted from the Pulitzer-winning dramatist August Wilson’s 1982 play, brings one of the US’s first professional blues singers back into the cultural sphere. The larger than life, gold tooth-wearing Ma Rainey, famed “Mother of the Blues”, is played with regal poise by Viola Davis, who fires off pointed retorts from beneath an impenetrable mask of make-up.

Known for her thunderous, moaning voice, sharp comic timing and compelling stage presence, Rainey was a pioneer of early blues music who opened the way for many rebellious, unconventional musicians who followed her. As blues laid the foundations for much of Western music, it is not overblown to say that, without Rainey, pop culture as we know it would be considerably different. But despite her influence on popular music and her fascinating story, Rainey has not always been the household name she deserves to be. A film like this was long overdue.

The details of Rainey’s upbringing are hazy. Her parents, Ella and Thomas Pridgett, named her Gertrude. Though Rainey repeatedly claimed she was born in 1886 in Columbus, Georgia, a 1900 census states she was born in Alabama in 1882. She started performing when a teenager, singing and dancing in a local Columbus stage show called A Bunch of Blackberries, and travelled on the road with vaudeville acts, incorporating comedy and music. In 1904 she married fellow performer Will Rainey; together, they billed themselves as “Ma and Pa Rainey” and toured with the popular variety troupe the Rabbit’s Foot Company.

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Rainey claimed that while playing a tent show in Missouri in 1902 she overheard a young woman playing a sorrowful song about a lost love. Haunted by the melody, Rainey began performing the song as her encore; when asked what kind of song she was singing, she replied “the blues”. Though the story is contested by music historians, the legend has stuck.

But whether or not Rainey coined the phrase, her role in the evolution of the blues is indisputable. Though she had no formal music training, she was respected by many of the jazz musicians she worked with, including a young Louis Armstrong and Thomas A Dorsey, the musical director on some of her best-known recordings, who described her in his unpublished memoirs as a “natural-born artist”. Her voice was gravelly and deep, able to veer from satirical inflections to pained cries in an instant. It was a voice made to sing the blues, and has lived on in songs such as “Moonshine Blues”, “Bo Weavil Blues” and “See See Rider”.

[see also: The best films for Christmas 2020]

In the early 20th century, blues was mainly popularised by vaudeville stars such as Ida Cox, Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters, who sang other people’s songs in their acts. Rainey was one of the few stars to write many of her own songs, covering themes of betrayal, lust, sexuality, depression, revenge, …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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