Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (April 26, 1886 – December 22, 1939) was an early blues singer and was incredibly influential in establishing the genre. She became known as “Ma” Rainey after being married to Will “Pa” Rainey in 1904. Together, they formed the group Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.
Ma Rainey is renowned and loved for her unique singing style. Her voice was incredibly powerful, she was very energetic and her vocal style was reminiscent of wailing or moaning. All of these attributes can be found in songs such as “Bo-Weevil Blues” and “Moonshine Blues”. Rainey recorded with other legendary musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Thomas Dorsey and was able to record and tour with the Georgia Jazz Band until 1935.
Rainey stated that she discovered “Blues Music” when she was in Missouri performing. One night, a girl introduced her to a sad song about a man leaving a woman. Rainey said that she learned the song and added it to her performances. She claimed to have created the term “blues” when asked what kind of song she was singing. After being discovered by Paramount Records producer J. Mayo Williams, she signed a recording contract with Paramount. Her work with Paramount garnered her fame beyond the South as Paramount marketed her as the “Mother of the Blues”, the “Songbird of the South”, the “Gold-Neck Woman of the Blues” and the “Paramount Wildcat.”
Ma Rainey’s style influenced Louis Armstrong, Janis Joplin and many others. She helped to create what we now know as “classic blues”. She portrayed black people’s lives, and specifically black women’s lives, in a way that had never been done before. Her lyrics, which portrayed women as being just as free as men to prioritize themselves and make sometimes questionable decisions, inspired Alice Walker when writing her characters for “The Color Purple”.
Rainey combined her minstrel show training with comedic timing and American blues traditions she became acquainted with in her travels. She pioneered a genre that continues to appeal to music listeners of all walks of life. She was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1983 and in 1990, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ma Rainey truly is the Mother of Blues.