Celebrating Black Lesbian Thought: Spotlight on Ma Rainey

By: 
emily
Friday, July 2, 2021

They said I do it, ain't nobody caught me

Sure got to prove it on me.

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.

They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men.

It’s true I wear a collar and tie.

Makes the wind blow all the while

 

-Ma Rainey, "Prove it on Me", 1928

 

The storied blues singer and vaudeville artist Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett. Some sources say she was born in 1886 in Columbus Georgia; others say she was born in 1882 in Alabama. The second of five children, by the age of twelve she began her career as a performer in talent shows and minstrel shows. 

When she married another performer, William “Pa” Rainey in 1904, she took the stage name “Ma Rainey”. They formed their own touring company together, but soon after joined Pat Chapelle’s much larger and more lucrative vaudeville company, the “Rabbit’s Foot Company.” There, the couple were billed as "Black Face Song and Dance Comedians, Jubilee Singers [and] Cake Walkers", touring throughout the South and gaining popularity as vaudeville performers. 

Rainey claimed that she coined the term “blues” after hearing a young girl singing a sad song  about a woman being left by a man. Rainey added this song to her repertoire, and when asked what kind of music it was, she described it as “blues.” In 1914 Rabbit’s Foot started billing the couple as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.” In New Orleans, they met other famed singers of the fast-growing blues scene, like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith- the latter of whom Rainey reportedly kidnapped and forced to join the Rabbit’s Foot company, though this story was later disputed. The Raineys separated in 1916; in 1919 Pa Rainey died.

Rainey’s career straddled both ends of a seismic event in music history- the development of recording. Unlike many vaudeville performers, Rainey’s success only continued to grow after recording changed the game, in part due to the growing demand for recordings by black musicians and the rapid ascent of blues’ popularity. Rainey was discovered by Paramount Records producer J. Mayo Williams in 1923. She signed with Paramount and made over one hundred recordings over the next five years. Through Paramount’s aggressive marketing- dubbing her the "Mother of the Blues", the "Songbird of the South", the "Gold-Neck Woman of the Blues" and the "Paramount Wildcat”, Rainey’s popularity skyrocketed throughout the country and elevated blues as a national genre, beyond the boundaries of the South. She would go on to work with Louis Armstrong and Thomas Dorsey, touring throughout the country and singing for Black and white audiences alike, and was one of the top earners of her generation. She dressed in opulent costumes of jewels and ostrich feathers and diamond tiaras and gold teeth. Sandra Lieb, in her biography of Rainey, describes her “uninhibited, provocative movements”, which thrilled crowds, especially during the sexually open 1920s. 

In 1928, as her style of blues began to wane in popularity, Rainey was fired by Paramount- and it’s unclear if they ever paid her the royalties she was due. The recording industry of the 1920s was deeply racist and exploitative, and J. Mayo Williams was known in his cutthroat dealings with (mostly Black) performers. In 1935, she returned to her hometown and took over three theatres, which she operated until her death in 1939. 

Though Ma Rainey sang quite a lot about men, “Prove It on Me,” according to Angela Y. Davis, “is a cultural precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s, which began to crystallize around the performance and recording of lesbian-affirming songs." Reportedly, the song refers to a 1925 incident in which Rainey was arrested for hosting an orgy at her home involving women from her chorus. Rainey also was rumored to have had a relationship with Bessie Smith, her protege. An ad for “Prove It on Me” winks at these rumors, showing Rainey mingling with women while wearing a menswear-inspired take on a woman’s suit, under the eye of a cop lurking suspiciously in the shadows. 

This is remarkable not only for the openness about lesbian relationships, but the blatant nose-thumbing at law enforcement. For all the new sexual openness of the 1920s, queer sexuality was still taboo and heavily policed- even more so for Black and Brown people, and violence from law enforcement was a constant threat. 

 

In the collection Mouths of Rain: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Thought, the writer SDiane Bogus places Rainey within the lineage of the “Black Bulldagger”. Bogus deliberately contrasts this figure with the Lesbian as originating in Sappho, delicate, reclining on a couch with her lyre: “Sappho is the lesbian men want to watch in movies.” Whereas the Bulldagger is: 

A link to our ancient and recent Black woman-loving past, and the predecessor of today’s Black lesbian….She is both a folk myth and a genuine article. She has been a transvestite, a bisexual, and always an identifible lover of women. We’ve seen her and have not seen her; we’ve heard about her and whispered about her. The Black Bulldagger has been what our girlhoods abhorred: We the ribbons, she the hat. We the dolls, she the jack. We the prom, she the bar. We the wife- the protectorate of man, his mistress, girlfriend, or date; she the woman-made-woman, her self’s own counsel and chief, the equal of men.

A woman whose professional name was directly influenced by her husband who nevertheless went her own way, totally eclipsing him in success, Rainey’s legacy is one of defiance, independence, larger-than-life glamor, and iconic artistry, even as her power was limited by the white, male- dominated ruthlessness of the recording industry and the confines of a similarly racist and homophobic America. Despite this, she transformed the role of women in music, and some say that her aesthetic the characters evoked in her songs- fearless, partying, sleeping around, unapologetically “bad”- have inspired hip-hop today. Her portrayals of Black female sexuality on its own terms inspired Alice Walker when writing The Color Purple. As Pride Month comes to a close, let’s not forget Black lesbians like Rainey, who paved the way for Queer Liberation today. 

 

“If you don't like my ocean 

don't fish in my sea 

Stay out of my valley 

and let my mountain be.”

 

-Ma Rainey, “Don’t Fish in My Sea,” 1927.

 

  1. https://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/rainey/rainey2

  2. https://www.biography.com/musician/ma-rainey

  3. Mouths of Rain: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Thought, ed. Briona Simone Jones

  4. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, Angela Davis

  5. https://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/14/theater/what-black-writers-owe-to-music.html

  6. https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/pride/7824784/ma-rainey-lesbian-lyrics