By Giovanni Russonello
Ma Rainey did not make the first blues recording; that distinction belongs to Mamie Smith, the vaudevillian who recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920. And Rainey did not achieve the monumental acclaim of Bessie Smith, her mentee and, later, friendly rival.
But it’s possible that neither of these figures would have sung the way they did without the influence of Rainey.
Often called the “Mother of the Blues,” she was the first entertainer to successfully bridge the divide between vaudeville — the cabaret-style shows that developed out of minstrelsy in the mid-1800s, and catered largely to white audiences — and authentic black Southern folk expression.
Even before the recording industry took off in the 1920s and the blues became a nationwide craze, she had developed a national reputation for her energizing, straight-talking performances and full-throated vocals. As the biographer Sandra Lieb observed in “Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey” (1983), by combining a black folk style with techniques learned on the vaudeville stage, Rainey “offered to whites a glimpse into black culture far less obscured by white expectations, and offered to blacks a more direct affirmation” of their cultural power.
In the process, Rainey helped to mainstream narratives of black female autonomy that had little to do with the Victorian norms of white society. Partly that meant speaking candidly about her attraction to women as well as men. In “Prove It on Me Blues,”accompanied by a jug band, she sings defiantly:
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and a tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while.
Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.
You sure got to prove it on me.
A Georgia native, Rainey began her career on the tent-show circuit, traveling with performance troupes that set up their own stages in towns across the South and Midwest, honing her own gregarious brew of music, comedy and social commentary.
The characters in Rainey’s songs rarely allowed themselves to become dependent on a male partner, or any agent of the law. “Far more typical,” the scholar and activist Angela Davis wrote in the book “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” (1998), “are songs in which women explicitly celebrate their right to conduct themselves as expansively and even as undesirably as men.”
In Rainey’s blues — many of which she wrote herself — even the most jilted narrator was unlikely to fall into despair. In “Oh Papa Blues,” after detailing her grievances against a neglectful lover, Rainey turns on a dime, steeling herself to exact revenge.
Oh, papa, think when you away from home
You just don’t want me now, wait and see
You’ll find some other man makin’ love to me, now
Papa, papa, you ain’t got no mama now.
With a mouthful of gold teeth, richly dark skin and flashy jewelry dangling about her, Rainey cast a striking figure, with a ruggedly powerful voice and lavish stage presence to match.
“When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle,” the pianist and composer Thomas A. Dorsey, who was the musical director on some of her best-known recordings, wrote in his unpublished memoirs.
“She was in the spotlight,” he added. “She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the blues with her.”