American Heroines: Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith

I’ve devoted quite a few posts on military bands, so I decided to research something a little different. I recently took a seminar at the University of Iowa regarding American Music, so the next few posts will come from some of my research in that class. While this post doesn’t deal with brass playing, one of the first performance opportunities that women had in jazz were as vocalists. On a cool side note, I did my undergrad in Columbus, GA, and the Schwob School of Music had in its possession ‘Ma’ Rainey’s piano.

While all-female military bands and their related municipal descendants were rooted in service and education, another American idiom addressed both social and political injustices as well as entertaining the masses. This is perhaps the most American form of music: jazz and the blues. Richard Crawford suggests in America’s Musical Life: A History that 1920s and 1930s blues artists Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith paved the way for the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Their blues lyrics addressed the “experiences of the black working-class women in ways far removed from the songs aimed at the white middle class.” Also, the love that was sung about in the blues was not an “idealized realm where dreams for future happiness were stored,” but rather, “were often linked with possibilities for greater social freedom.” In addressing the unromantic realities of life’s hardships, singers like Rainey and Smith brought to light many of the issues that African American women were dealing with—issues like death, disease, homosexuality, poverty, infidelity, depression, prison, alcohol, and abandonment.

  Born 1886 to a musical family in Columbus, Georgia, Rainey made a name for herself at a young age singing in a talent show in the Springer Opera House. She soon began traveling and performing with vaudeville and minstrel shows. Often called the “mother of the blues,” Rainey was known for her raw, raspy voice, her “moaning” style of singing, and her exceptional phrasing. She often sang of the pains of jealousy, poverty, sexual abuse, and the tribulations of black sharecroppers in the South. Rainey is also known for mentoring the young blues singer Bessie Smith. In 1912, Smith joined Rainey on tour in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Dubbed the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith soon became one of the most popular Blues singers of the 1920s. In fact, her rendition of “St. Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong is considered by many critics to be one of the best recordings of the 1920s.

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