Article | The brief history and social legacy of Ma Rainey, the mother of the blues

After Selena Quintanilla Perez won her own series through Netflix, it was time for the streaming platform to introduce us to another music icon – this time, traveling a few decades in the past to reminisce about one of the episodes. most incredible and complex in the phonographic history of ‘The Supreme Voice of the Blues’. The new biopic, which has already captured the hearts of critics and debuts today (18) in the service catalog, has brought none other than the Oscar winner in another race for the statuette by playing Ma Rainey , the mother of the blues. Accompanying him we also have Chadwick Boseman in his last performance before his tragic death, bringing to life a young trumpeter who wants to found his own band and win a world driven by supremacy and profit.

However, we will talk about Ma Rainey here. The legendary musician was born in 1886 in a small town in Georgia, USA, and rose to fame in 1915, when he embraced the blues and brought the genre to the mainstream scene. It is clear that Rainey did not create the genre in question, as it was built and animated almost thirty years after his birth by African American descendants who incorporated working songs, narrative ballads and simple rhymes. in the complexity of jazz and R&B. , which came even earlier. Either way, she, along with another classic name – Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues – forged an unprecedented friendship to take this sonic foray beyond the black communities of the south of the country, invading the dominated north. by the whites and leaving strong marks. in the story that will be saved many years later (by Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse, for example).

Born Gertrude Pridgett, the young woman adopted an alter-ego that represented her power on stage: Rainey aspired, in a positive way, to the air of any place that passed through her majestic presence, her exaggerated clothing and, above all, the power to dense and hoarse voices. She rode in wigs of wild horsehair, gold coins that formed a necklace around her neck; an ostrich feather was displayed in his presentations to make him even more mysterious, while gold dental implants glittered every time he opened his mouth. But its main milestone was to make the blues melancholy feel different, guiding the acidic intrigues about betrayal, empowerment, and sex in a way no one else has.

After all, the singer and songwriter has established herself as a herald of the past and, at the same time, the future: her traditional style intertwined with original characteristics, even more incorporating the expressive elements of folk and jazz. Ma Rainey, without realizing it or even without having this goal in mind, used a gift envied by many to give birth to a phonographic pastiche that would serve as the basis for the varied and unexpected mixtures of genres found in the music. contemporary society – as seen in so many international artists.

Embracing the experiences of the black community centered on a continent punished by the Jim Crow era and the segregative consequences of slavery – which somehow had ingrained in the minds of those who felt superior – their songs might even extend the reflections to echoes of trumpets and melodic piano keys, but these dropouts only masked sad life stories that helped popularize listeners. The very title of “Black Bottom”, which inspired the Netflix feature film, already uses irreverence to prepare us for an almost mystical journey through sultry and popular dance, somehow going back to a time when slaves they once had. found some freedom in the bodily expressions and rituals immortalized by their ancestors. In “Prove It On Me Blues,” Rainey seems to refer to creating a character with a difficult personality who loses his partner, but doesn’t get discouraged or accept blame for running away.

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The performer closed his first contact in 1923 with Paramount, four years after the recording of the first blues record by Mamie Smith. Rainey found no resistance from the public, as he already had an almost Vaudevilian experience on the theater circuit, having performed in several theaters in the south before finally making his way to Chicago and beginning to expand his “empire” to the rest of the country. . In her first session, she gave us classic iterations like the incomparable ‘Bo-Weevil Blues’ and the famous ‘See See Rider’, one of the most famous of all time – and one of the main ones when you want to know more about the aforementioned genre.

Unlike so many other country musicians, especially those who wanted a career following the many ramifications of blues and jazz country, Rainey earned his reputation not only as a professional, but also as an entrepreneur. Ma Rainey knew exactly what he wanted and when he wanted it – which explains his over ninety recordings with the studio, a number far greater than even white artists of the time. His career with Paramount lasted five years, but it was enough to cement his legacy without even realizing it, mostly because he dragged Smith along this roller coaster. Straightforward, straightforward, and honest, the songs brought everyday themes and opened up earlier discussions of sexuality, promiscuity, addictions, the odyssey of travel, spells and superstitions, and even the act of making music.

Oscillating between metalanguage and historical evocation – using the African-American scenario in the post-reconstruction era of North America, as William Barlow explained in his essay on the emergence of blues culture “Looking Up at Down ”. It’s no surprise that her prominence resonated with names like Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, in poetry, and with activist Alice Walker, who characterized her as a cultural model of Afro-descendant women and the used as inspiration for the Pulitzer winning piece ‘A Cor’ Violet ‘. In “ Black Pearls, ” a documentary book that portrays the queens of the blues, author Daphne Harrison perfectly summed up what Ma Rainey represented and continued to represent decades after her untimely death: a courageous and determined reaffirmation of what it means to be black.

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