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Blues Legacies And Black Feminism: Gertrudel

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How Gertrude "Ma" Rainey Shaped the Blues and Black Feminism

Gertrude "Ma" Rainey was one of the first professional blues singers and one of the first generation of blues artists to record. She was known as the "Mother of the Blues" for her powerful vocal delivery and her influence on other blues singers. She was also a pioneer of black feminism, as she challenged the norms of gender, sexuality, and race in her life and music.

In her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Y. Davis analyzes the careers of three black women blues singers: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. She argues that these singers expressed a radical vision of black womanhood that was rooted in the blues tradition. Davis shows how their songs addressed issues such as sexual autonomy, economic independence, racial oppression, and class exploitation.

Davis writes that Rainey was "the first popular stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues into her song repertoire". She also notes that Rainey was "openly bisexual" and that some of her songs, such as "Prove It on Me Blues" and "Sissy Blues", celebrated lesbian relationships. Davis argues that Rainey's sexuality was not a source of shame or stigma, but rather a sign of her freedom and defiance.

Rainey's songs also reflected her awareness of the social and economic conditions of black people in the Jim Crow era. She sang about the hardships of working-class life, such as poverty, violence, and migration. She also sang about the joys and sorrows of love, such as betrayal, jealousy, and loneliness. She used humor, irony, and wit to cope with the challenges she faced.

Davis concludes that Rainey's legacy is not only musical, but also political. She writes that Rainey's songs "anticipated the radicalism of contemporary black feminism". She adds that Rainey's music "reminds us that black women have always been in the forefront of struggles for social change".

Rainey's recordings featured some of the best jazz musicians of her time, such as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, and Buster Bailey. She also collaborated with other blues singers, such as Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, and her protÃgÃe Bessie Smith. Rainey's songs showcased her versatility and range, from slow and mournful ballads to upbeat and humorous numbers. She also wrote some of her own songs, such as "Moonshine Blues" and "Bo-Weevil Blues", which reflected her personal experiences and observations.

Rainey's career declined in the late 1920s, as the public taste shifted from classic blues to more urban styles. She made her last recordings in 1928 and retired from show business in 1933. She returned to her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, where she ran two theaters and became a respected community leader. She died of a heart attack on December 22, 1939, at the age of 53.

Rainey's legacy as a blues singer and a black feminist icon has been celebrated by many artists and scholars. In 1982, August Wilson wrote a play based on her life and music, titled Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which was adapted into a film in 2020 starring Viola Davis as Rainey. In 1983, Angela Davis published a book that analyzed Rainey's songs from a feminist perspective, titled Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. In 1990, Rainey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence. In 2004, she was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. ec8f644aee


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