Ma Rainey – Mother of the Blues

by Robert Graham

Almost a century ago, a pair of talented and fearless black women from the American south, brought some of the first recorded sounds of the blues to a national audience. In their ensuing rise to fame, they would travel the country to perform before enchanted audiences both black and white, and eventually become some of the most musically and culturally significant icons of the early 20th century. However, along the way of shaping the course of musical history, both women would become some of the earliest artists to sing about and become famous for bisexuality.

Ma Rainey was born in 1886 in Columbus, Georgia. She began her career in music by performing in black minstrel shows for her local church at the age of 14. By 1906 she and her husband had joined the Rabbit’s Foot Company. Rainey’s popularity continued to grow, when in 1914 in New Orleans she was introduced to a number of popular recording artists including Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet. Among the artists Ma Rainey would meet in New Orleans was another up and coming young blues singer by the name of Bessie Smith.

It wasn’t long after the Mother of Blues met the Empress of the Blues, that rumors began to circulate that the two were intimately involved. While it was never conclusively proven that the two legends of blues were having extra marital affairs with each other, neither woman strayed far from controversy during the period, especially when it came to their sex lives. In addition to writing It’s Dirty But Good, which featured explicitly lesbian lyrics, Bessie Smith was known to frequently get into trouble with her jealous husband due to her affairs with women.

Ma Rainey on the other hand wrote and recorded the song Prove It on Me, which contained lyrics referencing an incident in 1925, in which she was actually arrested for hosting an orgy with the female members of her chorus. Prove It on Me was described by activist Angela Davis, as being one of the key cultural precursors to the lesbian movement that would later develop in the 1970s.

While today they are largely remembered for their musical legacies, both Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, each in their own way contributed significantly to subtlety eroding the culture of rigid puritanism in regards to sexual expression and sexual preference. And on that very subject, Ma Rainey probably summed it up best; “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.”

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