While the blues developed in the rural South, the earliest recordings of blues were made by women who played the tent show circuits in the South and picked up blues songs from the town where they played. These proved to be popular in their shows which led to the first blues recording by Mamie Smith in 1921. This vaudeville or classic blues style was popular throughout the twenties with artists like Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, and Sippie Wallace making best-selling records and touring throughout the United States. The singer known as the Mother of the Blues, influencing all of other women blues singers, was Ma Rainey.
Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia in 1886. She won a local talent show at 12 and began touring with F.S. Wolcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels where she met and married Will “Pa” Rainey. They later formed their own company, “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues” and became famous in the South even before her first recording for Paramount in 1923. The most famous among her 100 recordings were “Bo-Weevil Blues” (1923) and “C.C. Rider” (1924). She toured throughout the 1920s with her Georgia Jazz Band which sometimes included Thomas A. Dorsey, who went on to become a famous gospel composer. Ma Rainey retired in 1935 and died in 1939.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play by August Wilson based on the music and life of Ma Rainey, recently played at the Beck Center in Lakewood.
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Ma Rainey: Mother of the Blues. JSP: 7793, 4CD set, c2007.