Ma Rainey

Compilation Reviews:

2007: Mother of the Blues [1923–1928]

Mother of the Blues

Rating: 9.6/10
Rated as
: Collection / Box Set
Album Status: Definite / Complete Recordings
Released: 2007
Recorded: 1923–1928
Specific Genre: Vaudeville Blues
Main Genre: Blues
: Acoustic Blues, Country Blues, Dixieland
Label: JSP

Gonna kill my man and catch the Cannonball

Ma Rainey – the anointed “mother of the blues” – was arguably among the first to sing the blues commercially in vaudeville shows, reportedly since around 1902. But she was quite late in the game when it came to recording: many of the performers following her path, being influenced or mentored by her, started recording before Rainey. The beginnings of blues are misty and full of contradicting witness reports. But Rainey had been around long enough to somewhat audaciously assert the (quite certainly wrong) story that she invented the term “blues”. On the contrary, there is more credible reporting that Rainey was somewhat mystified and irritated when she first heard the blues – its unrefined off-pitch notes didn’t fit into the musical world she was inhabiting around the turn of the century. This world was the world of the Rabbit’s Foot Company: a black minstrel show troupe with a repertoire of coon songs, vaudeville, cabaret and variety music. This mixture is how the blues started out as a recorded commodity – any occasion is a good occasion to remind oneself that the bridge in W.C. Handy’s ‘first written blues’ “St. Louis Blues” is a habanera.

Anyhow, Rainey appeared as a fully-fledged recording artist when hitting that scene 1923. While the small dixie-vaudevillian combo format is the standard for her as she ended up with anyone from Fletcher Henderson over Georgia Tom Dorsey to Louis Armstrong, there is a considerable amount of songs with country blues guitar accompaniment by Blind Blake, Tampa Red, Papa Charlie Jackson – she had them all. There’s no need to discuss this box set, really: this is essential. All of her recordings in chronological order, 1923–1928. You care about early blues, you get this set, there is no real middle ground. What sets Rainey apart? For me, it is the tone of her voice: kind of dark and down-trodden, in contrast to what her stage career suggests, she really doesn’t sound as if she’s trying to win over a crowd – on “See See Rider”, the blues standard she recorded early enough to claim writing credits, she is wounded and sleazy – she’s clearly hiding some sort of mystery even at her cheekiest. With her recording career cut short by the Great Depression and changing tastes, Rainey never quite made it to the period where good recording quality was a given, and even her latest recording are somewhat rough and tumbling, the arrangements notably less jazzy and closer to funeral brass bands than Bessie Smith’s music (whose comparative modernity enabled her to stretch her career beyond 1929). Ma Rainey is a towering figure – forget the feather boas, Rainey wasn’t successful because she dressed up the blues. Quite the opposite, even in the context of vaudeville, she kept blues as a format for individualism and personal expression. I mean, she did call herself the “assassinator of the blues” for a reason… even if that tag didn’t stick as much as the other one in my opening sentence.

If you are interested in complete blues discographies, see my list Complete Blues Discographies: What to Get.