Ma Rainey

(1886–1939)

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Ma Rainey (1886–1939), known as the "Mother of the Blues,” was one of the earliest known American professional blues singers. 

Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia, on April 26, 1886, to parents Thomas and Ella Pridgett. She married William Rainey at the age of 18 and the two toured as performers with multiple minstrel and vaudeville shows, including the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. After her marriage ended, Rainey established her own performance company and named it, “Madame Gertrude Rainey and her Georgia Smart Sets.” 

Playbill featuring a graphic of a woman in front of a microphone with her arms stretched out to her sides.

Playbill for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, 1984. 

2011.45.59

Gift of Kayla Deigh Owens, Playbill used by permission. All rights reserved, Playbill Inc.

Rainey was married twice and rumored to have had a relationship with the singer Bessie Smith, who got her start as one of Rainey's performers. Most of her songs that mention sexuality refer to love affairs with men, but she also had lyrics that were lesbian-affirming. Particularly the 1928 song “Prove It on Me,” which Angela Y. Davis has called a precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s.

In 1923, Rainey signed a contract with Paramount records and became one of the first recorded blues musicians. Between 1923 and 1928, she recorded almost 100 records. After the death of her sister and mother, Rainey retired to Columbus, Georgia, in 1935. Rainey passed away as the result of a heart attack on December 22, 1939.

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