Everything You Should Know About Ma Rainey’s Life

Ma Rainey, who came to be known as the “Mother of the Blues,” was quite an interesting figure. If you’ve seen ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ then you must already be aware of this. In the movie, Viola Davis presents a nuanced portrait of a black woman who was quite ahead of her time. If you wish to learn more about her, then we have got what you need. 

Did Ma Rainey Really Have Gold Teeth?

Yes, Ma Rainey did have gold teeth. As we all know, Ma was not only a powerhouse of talent, but she was also quite professional. Hence, it comes as no surprise that her costumes for her performances were a reflection of who she was. Ma was mostly seen in extravagant outfits with an equally heavy amount of jewelry. When she went on stage, the entire outfit would make a statement even before she started singing.

Thomas A. Dorsey, who was dubbed the “Father of Gospel Music,” often worked with Ma in the 1920s. He said, “When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle.” He added, “She was in the spotlight. She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the blues with her.” 

Was Ma Rainey a Lesbian?

Ma Rainey was nothing if not a pioneer, especially for the 1920s. The black woman faced not only racist and sexist hindrances over the course of her career, but it is also widely believed that she was bisexual. When she was 18, she married William “Pa” Rainey, but the two later split. Bessie Smith, who is regarded as the “Empress of Blues,” was also romantically linked with Ma. But not much has been documented about Ma’s female lovers. As such, it cannot be treated as a verified narrative.

Furthermore, the “Mother of the Blues” was Bessie’s mentor. Interestingly, there were rumors that Ma had kidnapped a young Bessie Smith while she was still trying to make it big in the industry. Why? Well, the story goes that Ma forced Smith to join Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, the show that Ma was a part of herself. This was also where she supposedly trained Bessie to sing the blues. However, the latter’s sister-in-law, Maud Smith, rejected these claims.

Image Credit: University of Illinois Springfield

This is not the only story associated with Ma and her sexuality. In 1925, Ma was jailed in Chicago. The previous night, she threw an all-female party that was supposedly an orgy, which led to her arrest. Her protege, Smith, apparently bailed her out the next morning. (This could probably explain why the two were thought to be romantically involved). In the 1928 song, “Prove It on Me Blues,” there are lyrics that hint at her fluid sexual orientation— “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.”

This is not the only song whose lyrics hint at Ma’s apparent bisexuality. We think that Robert Philipson (the director of ‘T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s’) said it best— “I don’t want to overplay the significance of the three songs that Ma Rainey wrote and recorded that had some references to lesbianism and homosexuality. That’s a handful out of hundreds and hundreds of blues songs that were recorded. The fact that there were any was remarkable, given the times. You certainly never saw it in any other part of American culture.” 

Who Was Ma Rainey’s Husband?

In 1904, Ma Rainey married William “Pa” Rainey, and the two traveled together performing in minstrel shows, the most notable one being Rabbit’s Foot Company. By 1914, they had formed their own group: Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. They even adopted a son named Danny, but the couple separated in 1916. It is believed that she later got married to a younger man, but there isn’t much information out there about this alliance.

Image Credit: geni.com

Most notably, even though Ma never publicly identified as bisexual, she was linked to her mentee and protege, Bessie Smith. Both were virtuoso singers and were known for lyrics that were risqué for the time. They bonded over such similarities and eventually were romantically linked. However, no proof of such a relationship exists, and so we can’t be certain about what went down between the two.

Taylour Paige, who plays Ma’s fictional girlfriend, Dussie Mae, in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ said this about her role— “For me, it’s just like there are an infinite amount of ways to be a woman and none of the ways make you less than the other, just because it’s different than some heteronormative consciousness. Sexuality is the last thing that [matters]—Ma is a woman, and she happens to sleep with who she wants to sleep with, just like any man does.” In the end, Ma was an empowered woman who lived her truth.

Read More: How Did Ma Rainey Die?