Who was Ma Rainey and why was she called the “Mother of the Blues”?

Ma Rainey (Gertrude Pridgett; 1886–1939), of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, was the first black to sing the blues in a professional show, in 1902. She learned a blues song from a local woman in Missouri, and audience response was such that she began to specialize in blues and became known as the “Mother of the Blues.” Born in Columbus, Georgia, she began public appearances at age fourteen, performing in a local talent revue. She went on to perform in tent shows and sing the blues. After marrying Will Rainey, the husband-and-wife team traveled with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and performed as “Ma” and “Pa” Rainey. They toured the South with several companies. Ma Rainey became especially popular, receiving separate billing. She sang in a raw and gritty style and became a flashy dresser who loved jewelry and glitter. Rainey met Bessie Smith sometime between 1912 and 1916 and greatly influenced Smith’s musical career. Rainey increased her audience through the recordings that she made with Paramount Record Company, beginning December 1923, and through performances on the Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) circuit. After the T.O.B.A. collapsed around 1931, at the time of the Great Depression, Rainey’s career suffered as well. In 1935 she returned to her native home in Columbus and operated two theaters that she owned.


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