1886-04-27

MA RAINEY, American singer (d. 1939); The great blues singer was part of a circle of black Lesbians and bisexuals that included Bessie Smith, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and Josephine Baker.

Rainey was one of the earliest known American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of such singers to record. She did much to develop and popularize the form and was an important influence on younger blues women, such as Bessie Smith, and their careers. Rainey was born in Columbus, Georgia. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey She first appeared on stage in Columbus in “A Bunch of Blackberries” at 14. She then joined a traveling vaudeville troupe, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. After hearing a sad song sung a cappella by a local girl in a small town in Missouri in 1902, she started performing in this style, and claimed that she was the one who named it “blues.”

In the one known interview she did, Rainey told the following story: In 1902 “a girl from town… came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the “man” who left her. The song was so strange and poignant that it attracted much attention and Rainey learned the song from the visitor, and used it soon afterwards in her “act”.” Audiences reacted strongly to the song.

She married fellow vaudeville singer William “Pa” Rainey in 1904, billing herself from that point as “Ma” Rainey. She later had an unknown number of children, one being Clyde Rainey, who served in the US Navy. “Ma and Pa” pair toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels as “Rainey & Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues”, singing a mix of blues and popular songs. In 1912, she took the young Bessie Smith into the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, trained her, and worked with her until Smith left in 1915.

Also known, though less discussed, is the fact that she was Bisexual. She was arrested in Chicago in 1925 for hosting an “indecent party” with a room full of semi-naked women. Rainey celebrated the Lesbian lifestyle in “Prove It On Me Blues”, which presented a cross-dressing, man-hating persona that was quite distinct from her regular public image:

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,

They must have been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.

It’s true I wear a collar and a tie, Make the wind blow all the time

They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me, Sure got to prove it on me.

The great blues singer was part of a circle of black Lesbians and bisexuals that included Bessie Smith, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and Josephine Baker.