“Ain’t nobody in the world been able to holler ‘Hey Bo-weavil’ like her. Not like Ma. Nobody,” claimed fellow blueswoman Victoria Spivey about Gertrude Pridgett “Ma” Rainey. In “Bo-Weavil Blues,” one of her most popular songs, Ma Rainey sang—or bellowed, really, in her powerful, smoky contralto—lyrics such as “I don’t want no man to put no sugar in my tea.” Her performances have left a legacy of glamour, and recollections of Ma Rainey on stage include legends of her opening act of hiding inside an empty Victrola box and then emerging—decked out in sequins and a necklace made of gold twenty-dollar coins—singing “Moonshine Blues” to wild applause.
March is Women’s History Month, and at the Abbeville Blog we’re kicking things off this week with a closer look at some of the remarkable histories of women in the blues. Starting in the 1930s and 40s, blues music came to be dominated by men and their guitars, but decades earlier women played a formative role in the genre. In Nothing But the Blues, one of our authors, Richard Spottswood, reconstructs a timeline that begins at the turn of the twentieth century, when blues queen Ma Rainey, who was often billed as Mother of the Blues, may have been one of the very first people to hear and to sing the blues. Spottswood reports how, according to an interview by folksong scholar John W. Work, Ma Rainey first heard the blues when she was touring her tent-show in a small town in Missouri in 1902:
She tells of a girl from the town who came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the “man” who had left her. The song was so strange and poignant that it attracted much attention. Ma Rainey became so interested that she learned the song from the visitor, and used it often in her “act” as an encore.
More than twenty years passed between that fateful morning and the day Ma Rainey made her first blues recording in 1923, including “Bo-Weavil Blues.” Some of her other hits (songs such as “Sissy Blues,” “Prove It on Me Blues,” and “Hustling Blues”) can surprise new listeners even now with their head-on and no-holds-barred approach to taboo subjects—in them, Ma Rainey sings about homosexuality, prostitution, drug abuse, and social deviance. That doesn’t mean they’re vulgar. In fact, in his chapter on women and the blues, Spottswood writes: “These and other tough-minded songs pull no punches. They’re blues at their best, allowing humor to merge with grief, and candor in turn to displace vulgarity.”