Ma Rainey: The Mother of Blues

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1886. She began performing her songs publically when she was fourteen years old. She was a successful stage entertainer for three decades, and she grew in fame during the 1920s, when classic blues became especially popular. One of Rainey’s most distinct characteristics was that she was one of the first artists to incorporate authentic blues into her song styles. She performed in many settings like the circus and minstrel shows, and eventually people referred to her as the “Mother of Blues” (“Ma Rainey”).

Ma Rainey acquired her nickname “Ma” when she married William “Pa” Rainey at age eighteen. Once she was married, she developed her own song and dance routine with her husband, and they began to tour all over the country. She served as a strong female black figure in American history. Daphane Harrison stated in Black Pearls: Blues Queens that “[Rainey’s] ability to capture the mood and essence of black rural southern life of the 1920s quickly endeared her to throngs of followers throughout the South” (“Ma Rainey”). The blues period of the 1920s was truly dominated by female blues singers, and Ma Rainey developed herself into one of the most successful blues musicians out there. Throughout her career, she collaborated and recorded with Louis Armstrong, Lovie Austin, Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson, and more (Candelaria).

One of her popular songs is “Deep Moaning Blues,” and I have attached a recording of the song and the lyrics below. This song is written in the traditional twelve-bar blues pattern. This is a solid example of how countless blues songs are formatted. It is in “AAB” format, which means that the first line of every stanza is repeated, and then there is a new line of material at the end to respond to it. Additionally, many blues songs have instrumental breaks between stanzas, and this song has a brief instrumental break at the end of the second stanza. In my opinion, what makes this song different from other blues songs is that the subject matter is not based on love between a man and a woman. Instead, she is describing her dysfunctional relationship with her father. She describes this with her lyrics, and she also expresses it through the bending of her pitches, which create a “moaning” effect.

Mmmn, mmmn
Mmmn, mmmn

My bell rang this morning, didn’t know which way to go
My bell rang this morning, didn’t know which way to go
I had the blues so bad, I sit right down on my floor

I felt like going on the mountain, jumping over in the sea
I felt like going in the mountain, jumping over in the sea
When my Daddy stay out late he don’t care a thing for me

Mmmnn, mmmn
Mmmmn, mmmn

Daddy, daddy, please come home to me
Daddy, daddy, please come home to me
I’m on my way, crazy as I can be

Lyrics from http://lyrics.wikia.com/wiki/Ma_Rainey:Deep_Moaning_Blues

Another one of Ma Rainey’s popular songs is “Prove It On Me Blues.” Unlike “Deep Moaning Blues,” this song is written more in a ballad form. Even though Ma Rainey obviously sings the song, the lyrics have a narrator that is a man. He sounds as if he is misunderstood by society. The lyrics allude to the idea that he is guilty of something (whether it is minor or a crime), and the people around him are trying to prove him guilty of something. Even though this song differs in style from the previous song by its lyrical structure, it is similar in that it still has a brief instrumental break after the fourth stanza. There is also similar instrumentation, with a piano, drums, a bass and some type of horn accompanying her singing.

Went out last night, had a great big fight
Everything seemed to go on wrong
I looked up, to my surprise
The gal I was with was gone

Where she went, I don’t know
I mean to follow everywhere she goes;
Folks say I’m crooked. I didn’t know where she took it
I want the whole world to know

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

It’s true I wear a collar and a tie
Makes the wind blow all the while
Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
You sure got to prove it on me

Say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me

I went out last night with a crowd of my friends
It must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man

Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me

Lyrics from: https://genius.com/Ma-rainey-prove-it-on-me-blues-lyrics

References

“Ma Rainey.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 28 Apr. 2017. Web. 21 July 2017.

Candelaria, Lorenzo F., and Daniel Kingman. American music: a panorama. 5th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015. 2015 . Web. 23 June 2017

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