G Is For Gertrude “Ma Rainey”

Miriam E. A.Thompson > Miriam’s Blog > Uncategorized > G Is For Gertrude “Ma Rainey”

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I have a secret.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been watching and re-watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix. Not only did I love the artistry of the incomparable playwright August Wilson, but I totally devoured Viola Davis’s recasting of the legendary blues and jazz pioneer Ma Rainey. And yes, I miss Chadwick Boseman too!

Who Is Ma Rainey?

Before the world knew her as the “Mother of the Blues, ” she was known by her legal name: Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett. Like Dorothy Dandridge, she was born into a family of performers. That means traveling across the country, performing at carnivals and tent shows. In 1904, she married Will “Pa” Rainey who was a comedian and performer. The two parted ways and “Ma Rainey” carved her own niche, attracting large crowds wherever she performed.

Why I Admire Ma Rainey

  • Ma Rainey was transparent about her sexuality. She did not hide her truth about being a proud bi-sexual. In fact, I understand some of her lyrics provide hints.
  • She wore an extravagant wardrobe, flashed her gold teeth and jewelry. Her fans loved it!
  • Her performances drew attention from African Americans and other races.
  • A woman singing about love, loss and heartbreak resonated with fans.
  • After signing with Paramount Records in 1923, she recorded over 100 songs, with most of them being hit songs. These have stood the test of time.
  • In 2004, “See See Rider Blues” which was recorded with Louis Armstrong, became part of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. 
  • Yes, she mentored Bessie Smith who had a successful jazz and blues career.

I love the depiction of Ma Rainey in the Netflix version of August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. She exuded a strong self concept which during a time when African Americans faced discrimination; she demanded respect as a woman and an artist.

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