Covering Ma Rainey.

September 16, 2011 § 7 Comments

I first heard the song on Hober, an internet music station that generously plays everything from klezmer music to throat-singing to bootleg Bob Dylan.

“You low-down alligator, just watch me soon or later, gonna catch you with your britches down.” The lyrics stopped me cold.

I wanted to sing a song that included both alligators and britches (in the down position). Who wouldn’t?  Plus the singer sounded sassy and while I can’t do big or brassy I can usually muster a respectable amount of sass.

I ran to the computer screen and read the title; although songs on Hober can repeat with annoying frequency, they are just as likely to be played once and then returned to the bottom shelf of obscurity.

“Black-Eye Blues.”

I found the title on YouTube but the voice singing “you low-down alligator” was darker, more put-out than sassy—the voice of a woman who had firsthand experience catching her man with his britches down and was damned tired of it.

That voice belonged to Gertrude Ma Rainey.

I checked the lady out. Born Gertrude Pritchett in 1886 she was already a professional on the vaudeville/minstrel circuit at age fourteen. She danced and sang in tent shows throughout the south. At eighteen she married William “Pa” Rainey and together they performed as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.”

Notice “the Blues” in that name? By 1902 she was incorporating what had always been a rural, homegrown musical form into her act, turning it show-biz.

For a handful of years she was a Paramount property, recording a hundred songs for the company. She was among the very first of the black recording stars., and in her heyday sang with some of the best.

Louis Armstrong.

Coleman Hawkins.

Fletcher Henderson.

Search Google Images for Ma Rainey and you will find just a handful of photos. One that appears frequently is actually Bessie Smith who Ma Rainey is credited with discovering.

Mostly it’s just the same photo over and over; darker, lighter, cropped, colorized.

The photo supports the opinion held even in her own time, that Ma Rainey was one homely woman, but she didn’t care. She wore lavish gowns and a string of gold coins around her neck. She glitzed herself up and performed, electrifying her audiences both black and white. In a time of fierce prejudice and segregation she was a heroine in the black South.

There are three Ma Rainey videos on YouTube of the song (although they represent only two different recordings). The total views for all three is 6,801 (801 of the views are mine).

Another song my singing partner Craig Reeder and I recently added to the “Hot Tamale” repertoire is “Neon Moon” by Brooks and Dunn. Videos of this song have almost four and a half million views. It’s a great song too, but the disparity makes me sad.

There is something genuinely thrilling about hearing the moaning voice of a woman threatening her sorry-ass man for cheating on her, and to hear that voice more than 80 years after the fact? Whoa!

I hope you’ll bump the girl’s numbers up a little by clicking this link. So here, without further ado is the original, the one, the only, Ma Rainey singing Black-Eye Blues.

Ma Rainey retired from singing in 1935. A shrewd business woman she opened two theaters of her own in Columbus, Georgia that she managed until her death. Her tombstone makes an honest brag: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, The Mother of the Blues.

How can I follow an act like that? I can’t. But between the alligators and the britches and all I now know about the woman behind the song I have to sing it. My voice lacks the sand and gravel of hers. Like the singer I first heard covering Ma Rainey’s song I have to fall back on sass.

“Hot Tamale” performed our version of the song last week on the deck of a local seafood restaurant while competing with the busy street out front. The setting was probably not all that different in its challenges from the road houses and tents where Gertrude Rainey once strutted her stuff.

You’ll notice that the camera had a mind of its own (watch for the appearance of the drinking glass on the righthand side of the screen) and the audio is about what you’d expect from a flip camera, but the promise of catching that low-down alligator with his britches down is as potent as ever. So, here it is: Hot Tamale covering Black-Eye Blues.

This one’s for you Gertrude.

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§ 7 Responses to Covering Ma Rainey.

  • Tgumster says:

    Starting a new day with a new song (words AND music!) is just a little bit of forever, a swaying to the Black-Eye Blues, awash in memory of now. As is the way with words and music once heard, nothing is ever quite the same. Maybe that’s the possibility of every day that dawns but it seems the sass of a new song on a new day makes that a promise.


  • craig reeder says:

    whoah!! who’da ever thunk a skinny white girl could bring back to life someone like Ma Rainey!! and with such Pizzazz!!!!!


  • I LOVE that song! First time I heard it was in Memphis in the 70’s – some sort of a Blues festival. I was teaching at a college in the area and Memphis was the “going to town” town for me. Thanks for the memory of an almost forgotten artist.

    And you go good, woman! Sass and class. One dynomite combination.I think St. G needs to hear a bit of this!



  • P & I love your own original soulful songs too.
    You are a torch singer.

    Enjoyable shout out to a legend here. This soutful essay reminds me that the sttage has riffed on her –

    The children’s biographer gene in me thinks that Ma Rainey is accessible to the kiddos in a title I’ve seen somewhere, but can’t locate it right now on the spot.


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