“Mother of the Blues”
Ma Rainey is widely considered to be the first woman to integrate authentic blues into her songs, or at the very least, “As music historian Chris Albertson has written, ‘If there was another woman who sang the blues before Rainey, nobody remembered hearing her’” (Ma Rainey). She was born as Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia. Her parents were minstrel troupers, and she married William Rainey in 1904 before both toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels (Ma Rainey). Many believe Ma Rainey influenced and possibly coached a young Bessie Smith (Biography). Ma and William separated in 1916, and Ma Rainey started touring with her own band, called Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Sets (Biography). She signed with Paramount Records in 1923, and Rainey’s recordings found fast success as she “enjoyed mass popularity during the blues craze of the 1920s,” leading to her undisputed title as “Mother of the Blues” (Biography). Rainey had incredible stage presence and energy, captivating her audiences. Rainey died of a heart attack in 1939 at the age of fifty-three, leaving behind a legacy that would inspire poets and songwriters alike. In 1990 Rainey was inducted into both the Blue Foundation’s Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Bo-Weevil Blues” was one of the first songs Ma Rainey recorded with Paramount Records in 1923. The Boll Weevil is a small beetle capable of destroying entire crops of cotton; in fact, “Before eradication the boll weevil was the chief pest of cotton in Georgia as well as in other areas of the cotton belt” (Roberts). In the 1920s, the boll weevil was a huge problem and had infested nearly all cotton crops in the United States. It is no surprise that singers began writing about the boll weevil, which was “simultaneously a disaster that could destroy someone’s livelihood and something that could be identified with. A seemingly powerless creature capable of completely subverting the goals of the agricultural ruling class” (Rugel).
Ma Rainey’s lyrics speak of the boll weevil’s presence everywhere, and she sings the blues to “ease a boll weevil’s lonesome mind.” She sings that she doesn’t want a man to put sugar in her tea for fear of poison, yet she grows tired of sleeping by herself. The boll weevil problem at the time lends some interesting background to the lyrics, and I suspect the song meant a great deal to people working in agriculture at the time. The lyrics are accompanied by a small jazz ensemble, giving the song a unique flavor. Rainey’s attributes are well represented in this song, featuring her strong vocal performance and “moaning” singing style. You can listen to “Bo-Weevil Blues” below:
“See See Rider Blues” was one of Ma Rainey’s biggest hits, and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004 (Grammy). Jas Obrecht explains that “While some of Ma’s records were set to the streamlined accompaniment of guitar, banjo, or piano, the majority of her 78s featured jazz ensembles, some quite extraordinary.” In mid-October 1924, Rainey was “accompanied in a New York studio by Louis Armstrong on cornet, Charlie Green on trombone, Buster Bailey on clarinet, Fletcher Henderson on piano, and Charlie Dixon on banjo” (Obrecht). This accompaniment transformed “See See Rider Blues” into what many consider to be a blues masterpiece. The lyrics are as follows:
I’m so unhappy, I feel so blue, I always feel so sad, I made a mistake, right from the start,
Oh, it seems so hard to part. . .
See, see, rider, see what you done done, Lawd, Lawd, Lawd, Made me love you, now your gal done come,
You made me love you, now your gal done come
I’m goin’ away, baby, won’t be back till fall, Lawd, Lawd, Lawd, Goin’ away, baby, won’t be back till fall,
If I find me a good man, I won’t be back at all
I’m gonna buy me a pistol just as long as I am tall, Lawd, Lawd, Lawd, Gonna kill my man and catch the Cannonball,
If he don’t have me, he won’t have no gal at all
The lyrics tell the story of a woman who loved a man who turned his back on her. Rainey sings that her love was a mistake now that his “gal done come” and that if he wouldn’t have her, he would have no woman at all. Ma Rainey puts a lot of soul into her singing, and you can feel the sorrow and longing behind the lyrics. You can listen to “See See Rider Blues” below:
Ma Rainey was most well known for her energetic disposition and charismatic stage presence, as well as her powerful vocals and “moaning” style of singing. In both “Bo-Weevil Blues” and “See See Rider Blues” Rainey’s unique mixture of jazz and blues influences can be seen, giving her songs color and contributing to her success. It is no wonder so many were drawn to her performances and songs, and Ma Rainey was able to channel her qualities in a way that has proved legendary.
Biography.com Editors. “Ma Rainey.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 27 Apr. 2017. Web. 23 June 2017. <https://www.biography.com/people/ma-rainey-9542413>.
“GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.” The GRAMMYs. The Recording Academy, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <https://www.grammy.org/recording-academy/awards/hall-of-fame#s>. “Ma Rainey.” Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/ma-rainey>.
Obrecht, Jas. ““See See Rider Blues” –Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1924).” (n.d.): n. pag. Library of Congress. Congress.gov. Web. 23 June 2017. <https://www.loc.gov/programs/static/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/Ma%20Rainey.pdf>.
Roberts, Phillip M. “Boll Weevil.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. Georgia Humanities Council and the University of Georgia Press, 18 May 2004. Web. 23 June 2017. <http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/business-economy/boll-weevil>.
Rugel, Mike. “Show 40 — Boll Weevil Blues.” Uncensored History of the Blues. N.p., 24 Jan. 2009. Web. 23 June 2017. <http://uncensoredhistoryoftheblues.purplebeech.com/2009/01/show-40-boll-weevil-blues.html>.