This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.
This is album retro-review number 196 in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and Cd albums in my collection.
The series is called “Cream of The Crate” and each review represents an album that I believe is of significant musical value, either because of it’s rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group/artist or the music.
Links to the previous 150 reviews can be found at the bottom of this review.
This week I have pulled an absolute treat from my record crate. This double album not only features one of the greatest blues singers – ever, but one of the greatest female blues singers – ever!
The artist is Ma Rainey and the double vinyl album is self-titled – Ma Rainey.
It was released on the Milestone Records label in 1974 with the identifying code of M 47201.
It is a 2-LP set in a gatefold format.
I first became aware of the name Ma Rainey, well before I realised just what an amazing woman she was and why she really is entitled to be declared the “Mother of the Blues”, back in the mid 60’s when Bob Dylan mentioned her name in his 1965 track – Tombstone Blues, in which he said, ” Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll….”
Now, I knew of Beethoven, but who was this Ma Rainey?
So the journey of adventure began and as I looked, I listened, and as I listened my soul was fed by the magic of her songs.
She was born Gertrude Malissa Pridgett in Columbus Georgia on April 26, 1886. We know her parents were in show business even though their exact contribution is a little hazy.
From a very young age Gertrude demonstrated a talent for singing. She made her first appearance at the age of 12 at the Columbus opera house, as part of a school presentation.
At the age of 18 she married William “Pa” Rainey who was not only a dancer, comedian and part-time (somewhat) singer, but was also considerably older than her.
As newlyweds they formed an act together, and as he was known as “Pa”, she became known as “Ma”.
They performed as part of a “minstrel” show and it needs to be clarified, that the negative perception we have now of minstrel shows, comes from the “Mr. Bones” routines of the white artists who mimicked black artists.
When Ma Rainey started her professional career the blues were not yet part of the minstrelsy, but were seen as part of the rural folk music, which the “professional” black artists shied away from.
How Ma Rainey came to sing the blues is quite fascinating. In the later part of her life she told the story, and it went something like this.
She says that she was part of a tent-show that visited a small rural town, and she happened upon a young girl who was sitting just outside the tent, singing about the ‘man’ who had left her.
Ma went onto say that the song was so strange and poignant that it really attracted her and she asked the visitor to teach it to her, and soon adapted both the song and the style into her act, where she would use it as an encore.
The song, in turn, elicited such a strong and positive response from the audience that it then became a feature of her act. Many times people asked her what type of song it was, and the story she tells is, that she replied in a stroke of inspiration one day, “It’s the blues.”
It would seem as though this was the first time the music had been so labelled and recorded in print as such when it appeared in the local newspaper.
Sadly, the newspaper was destroyed in a fire and the mention of the term on a 1905 clipping was lost!
As she moved further around she heard similar songs from folk in rural areas and so it was she picked them up, and adapted them.
About the same time as Ma was becoming known, another wonderful black female artist was also singing the “blues”, and that was the great Bessie Smith [See Cream of the Crate review #122].
Literary scholar of the day, Sterling Brown, once wrote of these two women – “Bessie was the greater blues singer . . . Ma really knew her people. She was a person of the folk, she was very simple and direct.
The night we saw her she was having boy trouble. You see, she liked these young musicians, and in come John Work ( a young man accompanying Brown) and I – we were young to her (Both men were born 15 years after her and the encounter was in the early 30’s).
We were something sent down, and she didn’t know which one to choose. Each of us knew we weren’t choosing her; we just wanted to talk. But she was interested in other things. She was that direct. . . . She was the tops for my money.
She would moan, and the audience would moan with her. She had them in the palm of her hand.”
It seems universally agreed to by those who actually saw Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith that Bessie was the greater singer but Ma, the greater performer.
Yet she did this despite not having the physical beauty of Bessie.
Ma was variously described in her day as having gold lined teeth, unruly hair and short, squat body. She was no match for Bessie Smiths ripe beauty, but she made up for it with tons of pure talent!
By the time she had become known as a blues singer, she had long left “Pa” and in fact was often referred to as not “Ma” Rainey, but “Madam” Rainey, and was the only blues singer to be granted this honorific title.
She made her first record in December of 1923 at the age of 37 and her last recording, just a mere five years later!
There are 94 tracks credited to her and all her original albums were recorded as 78rpm.
Having “conquered” the South, she eventually ended up in Chicago. It was inevitable. The name of the theatre where she gave her first performance has been lost, but composer Thomas A. Dorsey noted that, “Ma had the audience in the palm of her hand. Her diamonds flashed like sparks of fire falling from her fingers. The gold piece necklace lay like a golden armour covering her chest.”
He went on to note that, “When Ma had sung her last number and the grande finale, she took seven curtain calls.”
But Ma Rainey made a point of playing not just big theatres, but small, almost unnoticed clubs and theatres.
At the time teenaged Mary Lou Williams, who lived in Pittsburg, kept a diary and in it she wrote, “The fabulous Ma Rainey came into a little theatre on Wiley Avenue. Some of the older kids and I slipped downtown to hear the woman who’d made blues history.
Ma was loaded with real diamonds. . . . her hair was wild, and she had gold teeth. What a sight! To me, as a kid, the whole thing looked and sounded weird.”
Ma actually stopped recording before the Great Depression put an end to “Race Records“.
She had performed live in theatres and tents, but eventually the depression caught up with the likes of these venues, and they ceased.
In 1933 her mother and sister died and she decided to go home and look after her brother. Her final years were spent very quietly in Columbus and her only singing was with a church choir where her brother was a deacon.
Ma Rainey died on December 22, 1939 in her 59th year and is buried in the Portersdale cemetery in Columbus.
Now this album has 32 memorable tracks on it.
Many emphasis the “tragic” tone and delivery style she had, but others are full of vitality and humor, as exemplified by the track, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
It is in a gatefold presentation and the inner covers, both left and right hand sides, are full of information on Ma Rainey, along with the track listing, and recording details.
LP 1 – SIDE 1
On side 1 of this album Ma Rainey is variously accompanied by non other than “the” Louis Armstrong on Trumpet, Howard Scott on Cornett, Joe Sith on Cornett, Charlie Green on trombone, Buster Bailey on Clarinet, Coleman Hawkins on Bass Sax, Fletcher Henderson on Piano, Charlie Dixon on Banjo and Kaiser Marshall on Drums.
Tracks 1 – 4 were recorded in October 1924 in New York, while the remainder of side 1 was recorded early December 1925.
Side 1 track 2 is See See Rider Blues.
This is a very popular track among black blues players. Later the white electric blues groups of the 1960’s such as the Animals revisited the track and revised it in their own style.
Although Ma Rainey was the first to record this track, in 1924, it is generally considered to be a “traditional” piece of music with the exact composer long lost in history.
The track is also called C.C Rider, and refers to an unfaithful lover, and it is clear in the song, Ma also plans to make sure that if she can’t have him, no other woman will.
As the years went on the lyrics were changed, but here they are as she recorded the track.
It’s a fantastic example of her ability not only to sing the classic 12-bar blues, but to “feel” the blues, and I just love the trumpet response from Louis Armstrong.
I’m so unhappy,
I feel so blue.
I always feel so sad.
I made a mistake
Right from the start.
Oh, it seems so hard to part.
Oh, but this letter
That I will write,
I hope he will remember,
When he receive’ it.
Seeee see, rider.
See what you done done.
Lawd, lawd, lawd.
Made me love you,
Now your girl done come.
You made me love you,
Now your gal done come.
I’m go’n away, baby,
Won’t be back till fall.
Lawd, lawd, lawd.
Go’n away, baby,
Won’t be back till fall.
If I find me a good man,
I won’t be back at all.
I’m gonna buy me a pistol,
Just as long as I am tall.
Lawd, lawd, lawd.
Gonna kill my man and,
Catch the Cannonball.
If he don’t have me,
He won’t have no gal at all.
See See Rider
Track 7 has her credited as her singing with “Her Georgia Band” – which consisted on Armstrong, Smith, Green and Hawkins.
This track came out of her experiences in Chicago and is titled Bessemer Bound Blues.
In her book, Black Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis writes, “Bessemer Bound Blues is another of Rainey’s songs linking resistance to abusive treatment within a relationship with the return to the natal land.
Bessemer, then a rural suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, is the destination of a woman who decides that experiencing the glitter of Chicago is not worth the trouble of being victimized by a mistreating man.
Assertively informing her “papa” that I won’t be your dog no more, she announces the news that mama’s going home singing those Bessemer Bound Blues.”
Two things to mention! It is an apparent reference to being mistreated by her husband “Pa” Rainey, and the second? I love the way the horn section plays a drawn out “lifting” note that sounds like the representation of a train horn, on her journey home.
Bessemer Bound Blues
Turn the LP over to Side 2 and I have to stop at track 3 – Morning Hour Blues.
According to Wikipedia it was recorded in November 1926, but in fact it was recorded in February of 1927, in Chicago, and features Jimmy Blythe on piano, Jimmy Bertrand on Xylophone and none other than another blues legend, Blind Blake, on guitar.
The opportunity of listening to a fine 12 bar blues with Blind Blake was just irresistible.
Morning Hour Blues
While there are so really magnificent tracks on the rest of side, in particular Blues Oh Blues, and Slow Driving Moan, one of the tracks where the audience would “moan” along with her, I am jumping to the second LP in the set because it has three tracks on side 1 I would like to share.
LP 2 – Side 1
Track 1 is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a track that I referred to earlier.
The album liner notes say that little known about who accompanied her on this track which was recorded in December of 1927. The liner notes indicate that it is believed that Shirley Clay and Ike Rogers accompanied Ma on Cornet and Trombone respectively, but there is nothing to indicate who played Clarinet, Piano and Drums.
Further research suggests strongly she was in fact supported by her “Georgia Band”, the membership membership listed against track 7 – in this review (Bessemer Bound Blues).
This highlights the problems in identifying musicians on tracks from this era when poor written records were kept.
The track is a light-hearted track and is far more jazz oriented than blues. It really is a fantastic early example of her powerful vocal abilities, energetic disposition, majestic phrasing, and use of humour.
In fact in recent years the track title became the title of a 1982 play inspired by this real-life Blues legend, and penned by August Wilson, who is a Pulitzer prize winner.
Now, you heard the rest
Ah, boys, I’m gonna show you the best
Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom
Way down south in Alabamy
I got a friend, they call dancin’ Sammy
Who’s crazy about all the latest dances
Black bottom stomps and the Jew baby prances
The other night at a swell affair
Soon as the boys found out that I was there
They said, “Come on, Ma let’s go to the cabaret”
Where that band you ought to hear me say”
I want to see that dance you call the black bottom
I wanna learn that dance
Don’t you see the dance you call your big black bottom
That’ll put you in a trance
All the boys in the neighborhood
They say your black bottom is really good
Come on and show me your black bottom
I want to learn that dance
I want to see the dance you call the black bottom
I want to learn that dance
Come on and show that dance you call your big black bottom
It puts you in a trance
Early last morning ’bout the break of day
Grandpa told my grandma, I heard him say
Get up and show your old man your black bottom
I want to learn that dance
Now I’m gonna show y’all my black bottom
They stay to see that dance
Wait until you see me do my big black bottom
I’ll put you in a trance
Ah, do it ma, do it, honey
Look it now Ma, you gettin’ kinda rough here
You gotta be yourself now, careful now
Not too strong, not too strong, Ma
I done shown y’all my black bottom
You ought to learn that dance
Ma Rainey’s Back Bottom
Track 2 is New Boweavil Blues.
This track has Lil Henderson on piano and was recorded in Chicago in March of 1926. I love this track as it is so full of passion, mind you most of the tracks on this album are.
Now as we probably know, the boll weevil [correct name] was the curse of the cotton farmers as it ate and destroyed the crop. So, its no wonder that that Ma re-recorded this traditional song [Boweavil Blues] putting her own words into it, as she has used it to to reflect on the troubles that the boll weevil caused, to tell her tale of her troubles with men.
Ma was brilliant at using the elements around her to describe in turn the issues that men and women faced. It certainly seems that she may have deliberately used concrete issues that involved trouble, to describe the human condition in a way that the average person could relate.
New Boweavil Blues
There are some other great tracks on this side of the album, in particular track 5, with a jug backing.
But I have gone through to track 6 – Prove It On Me Blues.
As with the afore mentioned track 5, this track has Ma backed by the “Tub Jug Washboard Band” which consisted of “Georgia Tom” Dorsey on piano, Blues legend Tampa Red on Kazoo, and an unknown banjo and jug player.
Recorded in June 1928, it makes not so indirect reference too lesbianism, and as we look deeper into her life it is clear that Ma is referring to her own life.
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
Prove It To Me Blues
I have turned the second LP over to side 2 for one final track – Leavin’ This Morning.
Side 2 features Ma with just “Georgia Tom” Dorsey on piano and Tampa Red on guitar and all tracks were recorded in September of 1928.
I chose this track because it has Ma once again singing the blues in her wonderful style, but it also clearly features both Dorsey on piano and Tampa Red playing fantastic guitar which features his unique single-string slide style.
It is also worth mentioning that Dorsey is often referred to as the “Father” of black gospel music.
Like with all great blues singers, it does get hard to chose one track over another, as they all deserve to be listened to and appreciated.
But this is my choice.
Leavin’ This Morning
In a period some 130+ years after she was born and 97 years after her first recording we have all manner of technology at hand to “sweeten” a vocalists voice, to keep the pitch of the voice in tune, to harmonise, to do so much more.
So when we listen to Ma Rainey, the recordings are indeed very crude, but even so, the power and mesmerism of her voice shows that pure talent and commitment to her audience makes Ma Rainey absolutely stand out even more today.
She was indeed a great blues singer and as Madam Rainey rightfully wears the title of the Mother of the Blues.
This album, the self-titled Ma Rainey will be in very few music collections, either because she still remains relatively unknown except to blues aficionados.
Any blues collector worth his or her weight is likely to have a Ma Rainey vinyl or re-release CD in their collection.
This is a special album being a double gatefold, and it contains the best of her early recordings.
There were several copies available on Discogs and were being offered at $20 upward plus freight (which can be very expensive).
There were no copies on Ebay.
Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:
To view/listen the first 50 vinyl album reviews just click the image below –
To view/listen the first 50 Cd album reviews just click the image below –
To view/listen album reviews 101 – 150 just click the image below –
Click to open the following reviews covering #’s 151 onward.
#155. Billy Thorpe – Tangier
#159. The Band – Stage Fright
#162. Jimi Hendrix – Radio One
#170. Chain – Two Of A Kind
#171. Bob Marley – Legend
#176. B.B. King – The Best Of
#180. Flowers – Icehouse
#181. Joe Tex – The Best Of
#190. Madder Lake – Stillpoint