The Music of Ma Rainey
"Completing August Wilson's magnificent Century Cycle closes such a meaningful chapter in the Huntington's history. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom exemplifies his true jazz-poet genius." — Peter DuBois
Ma Rainey, like the blues, was a product of the late 19th century South that reached full flower in the early 20th century. Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia, she began performing around age 14 in the local talent show and at church. At 18, she married William "Pa" Rainey, and they toured an act together in minstrel, circus, and vaudeville shows throughout the South. No records survive of their act, but music historians surmise it was a mix of rural folk music, minstrelsy, and comedy. During her touring years, she spent winters in New Orleans where she met the best emerging blues and jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Joe "King" Oliver, and Bessie Smith (who she is presumed to have mentored if only by example).
Ma Rainey's performances were unforgettable to those who saw them; her talent is not fully captured by her recordings. In Understanding August Wilson, critic Mary L. Bogumil describes the live experience: "A flamboyant songstress, adorned by her own spectacular creations, jewels and costumes, she paraded onto the stage with her band and situated herself in front of equally magnificent backdrops she also created, such as an enormous cut-out of a gramophone, which gave the appearance of Ma emerging right from the speaker, issuing from and manifesting the music itself." Ma acted the part of entertainment royalty with relish, every inch a queen.
It wasn't just the shows that were big. Ma had a powerful voice and charismatic phrasing she delivered in a moaning style. Her material consisted of a variety of songs drawn from Southern traditions, unblushing in their treatment of human sexuality and unselfconsciously rural in their allusions to fortunetellers, boll weevils, and chain gangs. Legendary blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree describes her performance this way: "She was really an ugly woman, but when she opened her mouth — that was it! You forgot everything. She knew how to sing those blues, and she got right into your heart. What a personality she had. One of the greatest of all singers."
During the great migration from 1910-1930, six million African-Americans relocated from the South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West, and with them came the blues and Ma Rainey. Touring in performance for 23 years before ever recording a single song, she laid down over 100 tracks between 1923 and 1928, all for Paramount, a Chicago label specializing in what was then known as "race" music. Fortunately these recordings captured the unique style of 1920s blues as the form changed dramatically at the end of the decade. At the moment we meet Ma Rainey in August Wilson's play, blues performers are feeling the pressure from more modern movements in music like jazz and swing.
The importance of Ma Rainey's musical style in American culture is hard to overstate. Endlessly elastic, the blues "are all things to all men of the race" according to historian Derrick Stewart-Baker (Ma Rainey and Classic Blues Singers). He writes, "The blues are a state of mind. . . . [They] reflect the cry of the forgotten man and woman, the shout for freedom, the boast of the virile man, the wrath of the frustrated, and the ironical chuckle of the fatalist; . . . they also reflect the agony of insecurity, the poverty and the hunger of the workless, the despair of the bereaved and the cryptic humor of the cynic."
Blues also came to encompass the national African-American experience, rather than simply a regional one. As August Wilson notes in his introduction to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, "Whether this music came from Alabama or Mississippi or other parts of the South doesn't matter anymore. The men and women who make this music have learned it from the narrow crooked streets of East St. Louis, or the streets of the city's Southside, and the Alabama or Mississippi roots have been strangled by the Northern manners and customs of free men. . . . "
It's no accident that Wilson's first play of note concerns blues musicians. The blues is a form of music — much like Wilson's Century Cycle — that is both entertainment and a historical record. As Ma Rainey says in his play, "You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life." That ethos informs this play and all the rest.
— Lisa Timmel