The True Story of 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' and the Legacy of the Radical 'Mother of the Blues’

Olivia Ovenden
·3-min read

From Esquire

One of America's first African-American professional blues singers, and part of the first generation of singers to actually record their music, Ma Rainey – born Gertrude Pridgett – earned herself the title 'the mother of blues' due to her magnetic stage presence and the agonised, 'moaning' style of singing which she became famous for.

Rainey is the inspiration behind Netflix's new movie, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which is based on the play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. The film features Viola Davis as the grand, gold-teethed Rainey, commanding the stage with her Georgia Jazz band.

Photo credit: JP Jazz Archive - Getty Images
Photo credit: JP Jazz Archive - Getty Images

While Rainey's influence has often been overlooked by history, a retrospective obituary from The New York Times attempted to correct the record, positioning her as one of the most significant influences on blues music and its place as the bedrock of all Western pop. She was, it says, "the first entertainer to successfully bridge the divide between vaudeville — the cabaret-style shows that developed out of minstrelsy in the mid-1800s, and catered largely to white audiences — and authentic black Southern folk expression."

Rainey's dual identities as a Black and bisexual woman made her a marginalised figure at the time, though her lyrics where groundbreaking in their celebration of this identity. As the Times notes, she, "helped to mainstream narratives of black female autonomy that had little to do with the Victorian norms of white society. Partly that meant speaking candidly about her attraction to women as well as men".

From 1923 she made over 100 recordings, producing music alongside Louis Armstrong and pianist Thomas A Dorsey, who wrote of Rainey in his unpublished memoirs: "She was in the spotlight. She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the blues with her."

Photo credit: David Lee
Photo credit: David Lee

Based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, Netflix's forthcoming film focuses on an afternoon recording session in Twenties Chicago where the tensions rise, as a band of musicians await the arrival of trailblazing performer Ma Rainey. This particular meeting of musical minds is imagined, but the themes it explores – of creative ownership, of racial and sexual tensions – were true in the Twenties, when the play was set; in the Eighties, when it was written; and today.

The film explores the battle between Black talent and the white voices controlling them, with the tension between Ma and her white managers, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Irvine (Jeremy Shamos) taking over the claustrophobic rehearsal room where the band wait. Another battle of wills comes from the band's trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), who is after Ma’s girlfriend and trying to make his own claim on the music industry.

Photo credit: David Lee - Netflix
Photo credit: David Lee - Netflix

The film marks the last cinematic role of the late Chadwick Boseman, who tragically passed away from colon cancer earlier this year. It is produced by Denzel Washington and also stars Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige and Dusan Brown.

After Rainey's death in 1939, she was celebrated as an emblem of Black music and a symbol of the history of the Blues, her name appearing in poetry and music for decades to come. In Netflix's new tribute to the seminal singer, her name will come alive for another generation.

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' is on Netflix 18 December

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