The True Story of 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' and the Legacy of the Radical 'Mother of the Blues’

Olivia Ovenden
·6-min read
Photo credit: David Lee - Netflix
Photo credit: David Lee - Netflix

From Esquire

One of America's first African-American professional blues singers, and part of the first generation of singers to actually record their music, Ma Rainey earned herself the title 'the mother of blues' due to her magnetic stage presence and the agonised, 'moaning' style of singing which she became famous for.

Rainey is the inspiration behind Netflix's new movie, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which is based on the play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. The film features Viola Davis as the grand, gold-teethed Rainey, commanding the stage with her Georgia Jazz band.

Photo credit: JP Jazz Archive - Getty Images
Photo credit: JP Jazz Archive - Getty Images

While Rainey's influence has often been overlooked by history, a retrospective obituary from The New York Times attempted to correct the record, positioning her as one of the most significant influences on blues music and its place as the bedrock of all Western pop. She was, it says, "the first entertainer to successfully bridge the divide between vaudeville — the cabaret-style shows that developed out of minstrelsy in the mid-1800s, and catered largely to white audiences — and authentic black Southern folk expression."

Rainey's dual identities as a Black and bisexual woman made her a marginalised figure at the time, though her lyrics where groundbreaking in their celebration of this identity. As the Times notes, she, "helped to mainstream narratives of black female autonomy that had little to do with the Victorian norms of white society. Partly that meant speaking candidly about her attraction to women as well as men".

It's not clear when exactly she was born – she said herself that she was born Gertrude Pridgett on 26 April 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, but records and later researchers say she was actually born in Alabama in September 1882. She was the second of five children, and became 'Ma' Rainey when she married William 'Pa' Rainey at the age of 18.

Photo credit: David Lee
Photo credit: David Lee

Her performing career started with a talent show in Columbus when she was in her early teens, and after performing in a minstrel show with her husband she started to get to know the blues in about 1902. At one time Ma Rainey claimed to have coined the term 'blues' itself. After separating from Pa Rainey in 1916, Ma set up her own touring troupe and joined many other Black performers in quitting the South for desegregated cities in the north of the United States, like – as in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom – Chicago. She didn't just sing, either: she wrote her own songs.

Rainey wasn't the first Black woman to be recorded singing, but after Mamie Smith in 1920 she was among of the very first. From 1923 she made over 100 recordings, producing music alongside Louis Armstrong and pianist Thomas A Dorsey, who wrote of Rainey in his unpublished memoirs: "She was in the spotlight. She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the blues with her."

Photo credit: David Lee
Photo credit: David Lee

Ma Rainey is the only character in August Wilson's collection of ten plays to have been based on a real person, and is also the only LGBT character. As an openly queer woman, she had love affairs with women and sang about it on stage. "Went out last night with a crowd of my friends," goes 'Prove It On Me Blues'. "They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men". According to the New York Times, on one occasion had to be bailed out of jail after being arrested for having an orgy with her female backing dancers in Chicago.

"The blues as an art form has always struck me as having the power to transform the paradoxical, (faith versus despair, anguish versus desire) into a balm for the hopeful heart," director Wolfe said. "Or to quote Ma Rainey: 'The blues helps you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world. Something’s been added by that song'."

Photo credit: David Lee
Photo credit: David Lee

The play focuses on an afternoon recording session in Twenties Chicago where the tensions rise, as a band of musicians await the arrival of trailblazing performer Ma Rainey. This particular meeting of musical minds is imagined, but the themes it explores – of creative ownership, of racial and sexual tensions – were true in the Twenties, when the play was set; in the Eighties, when it was written; and today.

The Great Migration saw over 100,000 Black people who move to Chicago from the Deep South during the first twenty years of the twentieth century. This turned dark in the summer of 1919, when a seventeen-year-old black boy while swimming, inadvertently crossed an invisible line of racial demarcation, and was attacked and drowned. When no arrests were made for the young boy’s death, Black people took to the street in protest. During the ensuing confrontations, a white mob stormed Bronzeville, Chicago’s Black neighbourhood. Five days later, 37 were dead, 536 injured, and over a thousand left homeless.

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set during the summer of 1927. As the same racial embers which erupted eight years earlier continue to simmer. Wolfe has discussed how the film is intended to serve as a "metaphor" for where America is now, telling Esquire, "It’s very important that people and countries go on a journey of healing in which they confront the pain, the horror and the sins of the past, otherwise you can’t go forward."

Elsewhere film explores the battle between Black talent and the white voices controlling them, with the tension between Ma and her white managers, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Irvine (Jeremy Shamos) taking over the claustrophobic rehearsal room where the band wait. Wolfe highlights this idea especially in the ending of the story, a coda which he adds on after the shocking killing of Toledo (Glynn Turman) at the hands of the band's trumpeter Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman).

Photo credit: David Lee - Netflix
Photo credit: David Lee - Netflix

Wilson's play ends with this moment, yet Wolfe decided to add another scene in which we see a group of white musicians recording the song which Levee gave to his manager. "There’s all these incredible stories in popular culture where a Black musician or artist comes along and their work or compositions are usurped by a more mainstream white artist," Wolfe told Esquire. "Big Mama Thornton sang 'Hound Dog', but we don’t know that version, we know the Elvis Presley version."

His ending is a fitting tribute to Ma Rainey, who, after her death in 1939 became a symbol of the Blues and the struggle for Black artists to take their music to audiences on their own terms. In Netflix's new tribute to the seminal singer, her name comes alive for another generation at a time when

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' is on Netflix now

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