Ma Rainey(Oscar Doing As Oscar Does)
No need to run for the hills there is no “Think Piece” alert on the horizon. Well, not in the traditional(read: annoying) sense.
On this day in either 1886(or some records state 1882) Gertrude Pridgett (better known to the world as Ma Rainey) was born. Perhaps there should be a collective pause on that last statement… Better known to what world or whose world? To paraphrase the words of Doughboy we just don’t(or didn’t)know. Whose fault is that? But now that we know(a lil but about Ma Rainey), what do we do about it?
So… exactly what do we know? We know that August Wilson wrote one hell of a play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. We know that Denzel Washington owns the film rights to all of Wilson’s plays and his company did one hell of an adaptation, which also marked the final on screen performance of one Chadwick Boseman. We also know that Viola Davis acted her bottom off(see below)but ya’ll know how this goes.
At the news of yet another Oscar snub of a venerable Black Actor: surprise, then outrage, then rinse repeat. In recent memory the “Best Actor/Actress” when it comes to us has usually been bestowed for a role where the tragic flaw(s), historical traumas or the anatomy has been on full display. Honestly in that last statement I didn’t say anything, but yet I’m just saying.
Some quick facts about Ma Rainey…
August Wilson wrote one hell of a play. I had to say that again because it’s a play, adapted into a screenplay not a documentary. As with any play/film/TV Show there’s license that’s taken to tell a story. What do we know about Ma Rainey?
Ma Rainey April 26, 1886 – December 22, 1939
She took on the name “Ma” Rainey after her marriage to Will “Pa” Rainey in 1904
From 1923 – 1927 she made over 100 recordings for the Paramount label
Ma Rainey recorded with Thomas Dorsey(the Father of Gospel Music pictured above third from the left) and Louis Armstrong, and she toured and recorded with the Georgia Jazz Band. She toured until 1935, when she largely retired from performing.
In 1935, Rainey returned to her home town, Columbus, Georgia, and became the proprietorof three theatres, the Liberty in Columbus, and the Lyric and the Airdrome in Rome, Georgia, until her death. She died of a heart attack in 1939.
Where should we go from here? We should keep reading, keep listening, keep making connections. The record industry of Ma Rainey’s day is not too different from what still passes as business as usual today. There’s never been a shortage of exploitative practices and people in the “Industry”(I absolutely abhor that term btw). Black Music is a continuum. The reason that so many cannot see that simple fact is that we do not have a strong connection to the past. Ma Rainey sang the Blues. Hell, she lived it. Some of the music that passes for salacious these days would’ve been passé back then. The reason we sometimes can’t grasp that concept is we don’t know the code. But I digress…
Thomas Dorsey took what he was doing as a Blues Pianist with Ma Rainey and then superimposed that onto the Good News and created Gospel Music – let that sizzle in your spirit. The reason I bring that up is because saints and sinners are related. They may not always get along but they are all at Big Mama’s house for Thanksgiving. We’ve got to do a much better job of knowing and connecting to our musical relatives and ancestors and celebrate them whether or not Oscar does. We’re celebrating not only the life and legacy of Ma Rainey on this day but those who made the commitment to present a slice of her life to us. Thank you!