Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey not only deserved the title she earned as ‘Mother of the Blues’, she also claimed to have named the music the blues. She recalled first hearing it sung by a young girl in Missouri while Ma was performing at a tent show in 1902. Biographies usually cite her birthplace as Columbus, Georgia (April 26, 1886), but a 1900 census entry from Uchee, Alabama, located by researcher Bob Eagle gives her birthplace as Alabama and the date as September 1882, leading to speculation that her upbringing was much more rural than previously thought. Her recordings presented her as a tougher, more gutsy singer than most of the city-bred blues queens who ruled the blues world in the early days, closer in some ways to the country blues artists. But she performed for years before she truly evolved into the blues singer who teamed with husband Will ‘Pa’ Rainey to form TThe Assassinators of the Blues.’  Articles from the African-American press in the pre-blues era advertised her, in fact, as a ‘coon shouter’ – a typical term of the time. But she was indeed ‘assassinating’ the blues with a passion by the time she launched her recording career with Paramount Records in 1923. Recordings such as the original See See Rider, Bo-Weavil Blues, Moonshine Blues, and Stack O’Lee Blues. ‘Ma’  was renowned both for her flamboyant stage show and for her uninhibited lifestyle: she was a woman who sang both Lawd Send Me a Man Blues and Prove It On Me Blues (with its classic line ‘Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men’ ) She made her final recordings in 1928, and her career faded in the 1930s along with those of the other blues ‘comediennes’ of the vaudeville theater era. She finally bade farewell to the road and began operating theaters of her own in Columbus, where she died on Dec. 22, 1939. Her former home in Columbus, the Ma Rainey House, opened as a museum in 2007.

— Jim O’Neal