The 'Mother of the Blues' gets a museum at last

She was often called the "Mother of the Blues", her real name was Gertrude Pridgett, but she was much better known to her fans as "Ma" Rainey. A bisexual performer, she lived a life of whiskey-soaked controversy in the era of prohibition. She was also one of the earliest professional blues singers.

"Ma" Rainey only began recording in her thirties and by the time she retired, she had cut more than 90 records. With her throaty contralto voice and earthy style, her contribution to both the blues and female empowerment was enormous. But until recently her legacy was little remembered, even in Columbus, Georgia, where her house in the black Liberty district was falling apart.

Today, her house has finally been restored and recently opened as the "Ma" Rainey Blues Museum. Visitors can see photographs of her in the Deep South's travelling minstrel shows and hear the crackly original recordings that made her famous in the 1920s.

The story goes that in 1902, a girl came to the carnival in which "Ma" (the name always appeared in quotes) Rainey was performing and began to sing about the man who left her. The song was so poignant and elicited such a response that "Ma" Rainey put it in her act. She was often asked what kind of song it was and one day in a moment of inspiration replied: "It's the blues."

Musicologists have argued ever since about Rainey's claim to be the mother of the blues, with most agreeing that the blues were already developing as a distinct form at the time. But her contribution to the blues is undoubted. Her recordings influenced many other musicians: Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey were both in her band.

Something the museum has chosen not to draw attention to is the fact that Rainey was bisexual and proud of it. In 1925 she was jailed after hosting an "indecent party" with naked women. Rainey never shied away from her feelings and celebrated lesbianism in her first-person "Prove It On Me" blues:

"Went out last night with a crowd of my friends, they must have been women, 'cause I don't like no men.

Wear my clothes just like a fan, Talk to gals just like any old man

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

Getting the museum up and running has been a struggle. Florene Dawkins, the curator, faced considerable local scepticism from whites as well as black people. After the US Post Office issued a "Ma" Rainey stamp in 1994, B B King got involved and the money was finally raised.

Born in 1886, Rainey is often compared with Bessie Smith. However, while Bessie Smith was signed to Columbia records with its then state-of-the-art equipment, "Ma" signed with Paramount, which found it could make money selling inferior recordings to the black community.

Paramount sacked her after the stock market crash of 1929 and she returned home where she lived until her death in 1939.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Start a Career as a Financial Markets Trader

£40000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Become a professional Trader a...

Recruitment Genius: Software Implementation Consultant

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Recruitment Genius: Service Desk Co-ordinator / Client Services Administrator

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful applicant will s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Warehouse Assistant

£14807 - £15470 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This manufacturer and supplier ...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks