Blues pioneer Gertrude Pridgett (1886 – 1939) began performing as a teenager and became known as “Ma” Rainey after her marriage to Will “Pa” Rainey in 1904. They toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and later formed their own group, Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Her first recording was made in 1923 followed by over 100 more including “Bo-Weevil Blues” (1923), “See See Rider Blues” (1924) and “Soon This Morning” (1927).
Rainey was known for her powerful vocal abilities, energetic disposition, majestic phrasing, and a “moaning” style of singing. Rainey recorded toured until 1935 (including with Thomas Dorsey and Louis Armstrong) when she continued as a theater impresario in her hometown of Columbus, GA for the reaming four years of her life.
In 1982, August Wilson authored the musical Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – the title coming from Rainey’s song of the same name, which refers to the black bottom dance from the Roaring Twenties. Now it is a high production value Netflix feature with Viola Davis excelling in the lead role.
When the first gramaphone recordings of blues hit the market in 1920, black female singers surged to success. However, once guitar caught on in the following decade, men predominated popular blues. While the blues has remained in the popular music picture at all times in the intervening century, it is often behind the scenes powering rock, R&B, country and funk. But the blues is still with us.
100 years later things are going full circle. Female artists kicked down the door for this important music then, and now a younger generation is picking up the guitar and plugging in to carry the blues forward. In “Women created the blues. Now they are taking it back” in Christian Science Monitor Stephen Humphries discusses how Larkin Poe, Samantha Fish, Joanne Shaw Taylor, and Jackie Venson are reinvigorating the music.
Humphries adds this backstory:
The most popular blues performers in places like Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, and Tuxedo Junction in Birmingham, Alabama, were Black women. Notably, these singers bent their voices to sing something unheard-of in staid European music capitals: minor “blue” notes in between major notes over 12-bar shuffles. The blues drew on the call-and-response of spirituals. …Yet the women who helped pioneer the genre were shut out from the recording industry. Then, in 1920, vaudeville singer Mamie Smith convinced the Okeh label there would be a huge Black audience for her recordings. Her second release, which included the song “Crazy Blues,” made her the Adele of her era.
“It’s the first song to bring in a million dollars, and it really set a precedent for women taking the stage and starting to become recording artists,” says Lynn Orman Weiss, head of the Women of the Blues Foundation. “Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and Mamie Smith were huge stars.”
For more from Stephen Humphries CSMonitor article on women in blues today click here
Samantha Fish stars often in BC’s coverage of the New Orleans blues scene. Here is a clip of her in action at the 2018 NOCBGF. The Blues Center has been an official sponsor of the event since 2017. And in 2020 it was renamed the Samantha Fish New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival.