Musicheads Essential Artist: Ma Rainey

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Ma Rainey and her band in 1923
Ma Rainey (third from right) with her band members, left to right: Ed Pollack, Albert Wynn, Thomas A. Dorsey, Dave Nelson and Gabriel Washington in 1923. (Wikimedia Commons/public domain)
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Musicheads Essential Artist: Ma Rainey
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A foundational singer and songwriter who's rightly known as "the Mother of the Blues," Ma Rainey is a Musicheads Essential Artist.

Born in the American South in the 1880s, Gertrude Pridgett married a man known as "Pa" Rainey and took on a matching nickname, thus becoming "Ma" Rainey. Both Ma and Pa Rainey were performers, touring with Black minstrel shows. By 1914, the Raineys specialized in a newly named form of African American music and were billed as "Assassinators of the Blues." Soon, though, the couple separated and Ma Rainey went solo.

It was still the early days of the record industry, and Ma Rainey's recordings from the 1920s helped shape the classic blues sound. In her powerful low voice, Rainey sang songs of tragedy and triumph that also drew on the comic flair she'd developed over her years in vaudeville.

Original songs like "Moonshine Blues" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" became blues standards as Ma Rainey gained national fame. Touring across the country with her highly theatrical costumes and collaborating with peers like Louis Armstrong, Ma Rainey became an icon of the roaring '20s. When musical fashions changed, Ma Rainey returned to her hometown of Columbus, Georgia and ran local theaters until her death in 1939.

Today, Ma Rainey is remembered as one of the definitive classic blues artists: a key influence on the emerging sounds of blues, R&B, and ultimately rock and roll. Her songs explored a wide range of her own experiences as a Black woman, and she challenged heteronormative assumptions with lyrics alluding to lesbianism and bisexuality. Her influence extends far beyond music, and a century after she first stepped into a Chicago recording studio, Ma Rainey's strong voice still has important truths to tell.


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