If “Put Some Respect on My Name” Were a Person It Would Be Ma Rainey

Blues Overview

History of the Blues

By the end of the 1910s, the new kind of music that formed throughout Southern communities was referred to as the blues. The genre of blues was not a new concept, it was a development that came from the earlier genres like folk, spirituals, ragtime and barbershop music. The blues was a result of the oppression Black people endured including Jim Crow laws, terrorism from white people, voter suppression and the loss of jobs due to new European immigrants. This was a new generation of people, many did not grow up seeing their parents work as slaves but they did see the same suffrage. Unlike the genres that came before it, blues singers commonly sung solo or quartets at most with some background singers. The blues lyrics were, in contrast to prior genres, self-centered and dealt with a broad range of emotions and feelings. These emotions had to deal with daily life as a Black person so it could be about oppression or it could be about loving on your significant other. Although prior genres talked about emotions they were a group effort and they were more on the seldom side, the range of emotions wasn’t as broad.

Elements of the Blues

In the earlier stages of the blues music the banjo was commonly used as the main instrument. As the blues became popular Black people would use anything they could get their hands on as an instrument to create music. Back in these days a majority of Black people were suffering in poverty so they used things like kazoos, fiddles, metal trash cans for drums and even wash boards. As the blues evolved and progressed the guitar, harmonica, and piano were added. 

The most important instrument used in the blues was the singers’ voices themselves. Most notable blues singers all had a similar and unique style of singing. Similar to field hollers within folk music the blues singers would sound like they were crying, moaning or even “howling” sometimes. This style of singing allowed the singers to pass their immense emotion onto their audience, whatever the singer was feeling the audience was sure to feel it as well.

Notable Blues Artists

Bessie Smith was born Elizabeth Smith in Tennessee. Undeniably one of the greatest and most influential Blues artists. Bessie Smith is in both the Blues and Rock n Roll Hall of Fames. Notable songs by her include Young Woman’s Blues and You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon as well as her cover of Downhearted Blues. The infamous multitalented actress and singer/rapper Queen Latifah played her in the biopic Bessie.

 

Howlin Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett in Mississippi but later moved to Chicago. Howlin Wolf played many instruments such as the harmonica and guitar but his voice was his main instrument. Many know his for his first hit record Moanin’ At Midnight as well as Smokestack Lightnin’ and Dog Me Around. Wolf had a unique voice it was raspy yet smooth at the same time and made just for the Blues. Wolf’s voice was influential to the Rock n Roll music to come after him, as their voices emulated Wolf’s. Eamonn Walker played him in the movie Cadillac Records.

 

Nina Simone who was born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina. Nina Simone was known for several songs many know her songs Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and Four Women as well as her cover song Feeling Good. Although Nina Simone was not specifically a blues singer, she was a woman of many talents and her music was more jazz and folk. Some of her songs such as her cover songs I Put A Spell On You and Feeling Good can be considered as Blues songs. Zoe Saldana played her in the biopic Nina.

 

Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia and raised in Baltimore as Eleanora Harris, she did use her mother’s surname Fagon at one point. who is well known for her popular song Strange Fruit. Billie Holiday was given the nickname “Lady Day” by the saxophonist Lester Young. Diana Ross starred in her the autobiography, turned movie, that Holiday wrote Lady Sings the Blues

 

B. B. King was born Riley B. King in Mississippi. B. B. King was had a huge impact on rock music, rock guitarists acknowledged him as one of their influences. King is the literal King of the Blues, no pun intended. Throughout his lifetime and career King was rewarded with many awards including, but not limited to, A lifetime achievement Grammy Award and the National Medal of Arts. In addition, King was a Kennedy Center honoree and is including in both the Blues and Rock n Roll Hall of Fames. The album Live as the Regal won King his first Grammy of many more to come and his album One Kind Favor earned King his 15th and last Grammy. B. B. King does not have an official biopic yet but The Thrill Is On is a drama about Michael Zanetis and King’s friendship. Wendell Pierce starred as B. B. King in the movie.

 

Etta James was born in California as Jamesetta Hawkins. Etta James is well known for her song I’d Rather Go Blind and At Last. In addition to the four Grammy Awards Etta James was included in the Blues, Rock n Roll and Grammy Hall of Fames. The infamous multitalented singer and actress Beyoncé played her in Cadillac Records.

Early Life of Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey was born in 1886 as Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia. Ma Rainey is referred to as the “Mother of the Blues”. Rainey’s parents, Thomas and Ella Pridgett, were minstrel performers. Rainey showed that she had talent from a young age and performed as a teenager. In Columbus at Springer Opera House she made her first appearance with the Bunch of Blackberries in a talent show. In 1904, Rainey married the comedian and singer Willam “Pa” Rainey. The two toured as a double act with various other Black artists. After 12 years of marriage in 1916 Rainey separated from William. Rainey first heard heard the blues while she was in a small Missouri town. 

Her Career

In the 1910s, Ma Rainey performed with Fat Chappelle’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels in addition to the Tolliver’s Circus and musical Extravaganza. Rainey was known for her unique dramatic look with gold teeth, diamond headpieces, cash necklaces and gold gowns. After Rainey separated from her husband in 1916 she performed by herself with a backing band, they went by “Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets”. In 1923, Rainey signed a recording contract with Paramount Records, she recorded close to 100 records which featured many notable artists such as Louis Armstrong. In 1923, Rainey recorded See See Ride which late became one of the most recorded blues songs. Since Rainey was the first to record the song she held the copyright for it. After signing with Paramount Rainey made sure to continue traveling and performing across the South. Once her music took off successfully Rainey began touring in the North with her backing band, the Wildcats Jazz Band.

 

Due to the Great Depression the blues went out of style and record companies weren’t looking for blues artists so Rainey’s high demand ran out. In 1935, after Rainey’s mother and sister died she decided to move back to her hometown Columbus, Georgia. Until her death from heart failure in 1939, Rainey managed the Lyric and Airdome theaters in Columbus. In 1990 Rainey was inducted in the Blues Foundation and Rock n Roll Hall of Fames. In 1994, a postage stamp was issued in Rainey’s honor by the US Postal Service. In 2004 Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry added Rainey’s 1924 song See See Rider Blues, which the young Louis Armstrong featured on. In 2007 Rainey’s Columbus home became a museum in her honor. In the Bessie Smith’s biopic, Bessie, the infamous Mo’Nique played Ma Rainey. 

Her Impact

Impact on Other Artists

During her career Ma Rainey worked with many other artists as well as mentoring a few. In 1912, while Rainey was still touring with her then husband, William, they recruited the infamous blues singer Bessie Smith as a dancer. The two of them became close quickly and Rainey mentored Smith in her early career. Rainey has inspired other artists such as Janis Joplin, Dinah Washington and Big Mama Thornton. Rainey’s story was the inspiration for August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, who title is named after Rainey’s song. The play was successful on Broadway and was turned into the recent movie of the same title starring Viola Davis playing her. Rainey served as inspiration for artists outside of music as well including Langston Hughes who paid tribute to her in his poem Shadow of the Blues” and Sterling A. Brown’s poem “Ma Rainey”. Alice walker used Rainey’s music as inspiration for her Pulitzer-winning novel, The Color Purple. Writer, Daphane Harrison, acknowledged Rainey and praised her for being the first great blues singer in her novel Black Pearls.

Impact on the Black Community

Ma Rainey was well known for the way she demanded respect from not only white people but everyone. Rainey never allowed anyone to disrespect her, when you came to her you came to her with respect or you didn’t come to her at all. This was displayed well in the recent movie Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. As a Black woman it was expected that you would keep your mouth closed and do as the men tell you. Rainey changed the narrative and set and example for how Black women should act and be treated. Everyone wanted to use Rainey for her voice in order to make money off of her and she knew this, so she made them work for her voice. Throughout the entire film Rainey did everything on her terms, if it wasn’t she through a “fit”.  Some would see her as “difficult” but she wasn’t doing anything that wasn’t necessary. If she was a white man all of her demands would have been met without any hassle. Since she was a Black women she was supposed to settle for whatever treatment anyone, especially men, gave her. Rainey was inspiration to not only upcoming Black women and men artists but also regular Black people. Although Rainey only had the luxury of acting like this because she of her voice, it was still inspiring.

Impact on Women through Music

Ma Rainey’s music ranged from love to expressing her sexuality. A lot of her music caters to women, specifically Black women considering that’s the only perspective she can give. In this time period many Black women were in abusive relationships due to the different tensions within the Black community. Racism has always been a main strain on Black relationships because the Black man goes out into the world and is treated like nothing but can’t do anything about it. Once he comes home he takes that pent up anger out on his wife. Another common strain on Black relationships had to do with financial problems. Many Black people dealt with poverty and making ends meet, for the men it weighed on them because it made them feel as though they were failing at being the provider of the home. In many cases the men couldn’t find work so the woman had to be the bread maker by cleaning clothes or houses for the white people. This caused the same outcome as before with racism, their pent up anger and stress causes tension within the marriage which led to abuse a lot of the time.

 

Rainey’s song Oh Papa Blues, discusses a past relationship where her lover did her wrong. Instead of singing about drowning in sorrow Rainey sang about getting revenge on the ex-lover. Rainey served as an influence to other Black women not to put up with the mistreatment from men. In addition to her music, it was well known that Rainey did not play about her respect, no matter who it was. Ma Rainey was also bisexual and did not hide it, this was not something that was discussed or commonly accepted within the Black community. In Rainey’s song Prove it on Me Blues, she sings about being attracted to other women and how she enjoys dressing in men’s clothing. This was influential to other Black women to be open with their sexuality, not just sexual orientation but in general. Women speaking about their sexuality was taboo and unheard of so Rainey stood as an example that women should be able to talk about their sexuality if they please.

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