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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Ma  Rainey

Ma Rainey 1886to –1939

American singer and performer, and one of the earliest professional blues singers, often called The Mother of the Blues. She began performing as a young teenager, singing and dancing as part of a traveling minstrel show. She took her stage name after she married Will “Pa” Rainey; the two later headlined their own troupe. Rainey had her first exposure to the blues while traveling through the minstrel circuit in the south. She adopted the style as her own, singing it with her rough and powerful voice, but polished enough to appeal to a broader audience. The accompanying stage performance often began with her stepping out of a giant prop gramophone in a flashy sequin dress. It was immensely popular, and when Paramount approached her with a record deal, she became one of the earliest recorded blues performers—she made over 100 records within a span of five years. The blues were meant to be a little risqué, which might explain how she got away with the openly lesbian song “Prove It On Me,” which includes the line “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men.” The song could have been inspired by an incident in which the police raided an all-female party-turned-orgy that Rainey had been hosting. Bessie Smith, a fellow bisexual blues singer whom Rainey mentored, bailed her out of jail the following morning. Rainey was always in control of her own finances, and when the blues began to lose popularity, she returned to her hometown in Georgia. There she owned and ran two successful theaters until her death.

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