Happy birthday, Ma

No doubt that my mother, surely one of the only people who reads these updates, will be surprised at the title of this post since her birthday is still months away. Rather than being the birthday of my own mother, April 26th, 1882—or 1886—is the birthday of the so-called Mother of the Blues, one of the most influential performers and songwriters of the early 20th century, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey.

Rainey may not have invented, or given birth to, the blues as her nickname implies but her powerful and haunting voice provided a level of emotion and pathos that many of her contemporaries tried and failed to imitate.

Mamie Smith—the first-ever African-American singer to record a blues—had a relatively powerful voice, but it was the voice of a singer, all polish and enunciation. Not surprisingly, this made Mamie Smith quite a hit with recording studios and buyers of records in her day. Her name tends to get lost in the shuffle of her contemporaries, though, who concentrated more on emotion and less on diction.

Bessie Smith, so-called Empress of the Blues, developed her own powerful and growling vocal style. In fact, because Rainey and Smith were in a well-known touring vaudeville group together, the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, rumours developed that Rainey taught Smith how to sing. That Smith and Rainey have significantly different vocal styles is obvious enough but, like any touring musician, it’s probable that Smith built parts of her own heavily imitated vocal style on the foundations of some of her fellow performers, including Rainey.

Rainey’s unique voice and overwrought performance style apparently translated better in the vaudeville shows she made her name in. But even though recording technology was unreliable in Rainey’s heyday and time has eroded much of the sound quality of her early recordings—over 100 of them—Rainey’s unique style can still be found peeking through the static on most of her records.

So, happy 133rd—or 137th—birthday, Ma. Please, try not to get too rowdy.

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