Ma Rainey’s Professional and Personal Life in Song

Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett, also known as Ma Rainey, was born in Columbus, Georgia in September 1882 or April 1886.

A&E’s Biography.com says her career started after winning a talent show and then going on to tour in tent shows throughout the south. In 1923, she signed a contract with paramount records. Her records sold well, and she made lots of recordings in the 1920s, most dealing with topics such as love and sexuality. This is most likely why she picked up the nick name of “Madame Rainey”. She also sang about prison, the workplace, drinking, and other experiences African Americans in the post reconstruction era of the south may deal with. She recorded with trumpet player Louis Armstrong during this time. She also hired Bessie Smith to tour in her show where they became friends. She had quite the reputation on these tours for being wild and too friendly with other women. Popularity of the blues faded in the 1930s. She returned to Georgia where she ran 2 theaters and died of heart attack in 1939 (Biography.com Editors).

One of Ma Rainey’s most classic songs recorded in 1924 was “Countin’ the Blues” with her Georgia Jazz Band. Louis Armstrong plays the trumpet in this song. The music is played at a very slow tempo setting the mood for a song dealing with traditional blues themes. The pitch of her voice is low with a fairly narrow range. The pitch does goes up a bit at the beginning of some lines which is reminiscent of the African American tradition of arwhoolies. The lyrics are sung in a structured AAB format:

Layin’ in bed this mornin’ with my face turned to the wall

Layin’ in bed this mornin’ with my face turned to the wall

Trying to count these blues so I could sing ’em all

The song is a very traditional classic blues song in almost all aspects. From the 12 bar blues pattern, the jazz band accompaniment, and the call and response pattern with the clarinet, trumpet, and trombone, all parts come together to form an emotional but structured song.

One of Ma Rainey’s most controversial songs is “Prove It On Me Blues” recorded in June of 1928 and released in August of that year as a single (Katz). The song is often interpreted as a rebel’s anthem because months before Ma Rainey was imprisoned for lesbian activity. She was accompanied by her Tub Jug Washboard band. The music is a duple meter beat with a stress of the 1st and 3rd beat in strophic form with a thick texture. The music doesn’t sound as polished as her jazz band from “Countin’ the Blues” partly from the fact that the band consists of homemade instruments like a washboard and a kazoo. However, the instruments blend together more than in “Countin the Blues” where they seem to take turns playing.

In contrast to the call and response style of “Countin the Blues”, the music in “Prove It On Me Blue” accompanies Ma Rainey’s message than standing out on its own. It is a personal message, a message of rebellion which is why it doesn’t need to fit traditional patterns. The lyrics are in an ABCB format for stanzas and the chorus is AABB. This deviates from the classic 12 bar blues AAB format. Not all her songs are in AAB format, but most of the ones I went through had a consistent structure throughout like AABB.

They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me

Sure got to prove it on me;

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends

They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men

Both songs are distinctly Ma Rainey with similar vocal delivery styles. However, the lyrical content diverges from traditional blues about prison, traveling, and drinking to a more rebellious and out of the box theme which calls for something a little different.

Lyric Sources:

“Ma Rainey:Countin’ The Blues.” LyricWikia. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 June 2017.

“Prove It On Me Lyrics — Ma Rainey.” Prove It On Me Lyrics — Ma Rainey| ELyrics.net. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 June 2017.

Other Sources:

Biography.com Editors. “Ma Rainey.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 28 Apr. 2017. Web. 20 July 2017.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. “An assertive song of lesbian self-affirmation. · Jonathan Ned Katz: Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues,” 1928 · outhistory.org.” Outhistory.org. Outhistory, May 2014. Web. 20 July 2017.

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