Stirring up memories
Makin’ good, singin’ blues
February 16, 2005
In 1886 the Pridgett family of Columbus, Georgia welcomed a baby girl,
Gertrude Nix, to their family. She
was the second child. Ella and
Thomas Pridgett soon added three more children to the family.
Little Gertrude grew up there in Columbus, and when she died there in
1939, a young 53, her grave in the Porterdale Cemetery was simple and her death
certificate noted only that she was a housekeeper.
Then why take note of what appears to be an insignificant housekeeper in
a city where many of the African-American women of the period were
Because in those 53 years, Gertrude managed to tuck in a lot of
living. In fact, some people would
say that she became a legend and remains one.
She didn’t grow up to be a
housekeeper; there was another tradition in the Pridgett family—they were
performers. Not just her parents
but her grandparents as well. When
Gertrude was only fourteen, she hit the boards at Columbus’s famous Springer Opera House in a
group known as the “Bunch of Blackberries.”
She must have been a hit, because she soon was touring with vaudeville
and minstrel shows across the south.
Her new group, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, was so successful that they had
their own railroad car to take them from performance to performance.
It was about then that Gertrude’s life really began to change. When she was only eighteen, she met a
fellow named William Rainey. Met
him, fell in love and married him.
William was quite a bit older than his bride and had been performing a
long time. So long, that many folks
knew him as “Pa Rainey.”
And now you know the rest of the story.
I’ve been thinking about, if not singing, the blues for the last few
weeks. Don’t know why, maybe all
the stormy, cloudy days we had through September. I didn’t realize that this amazing
performer was from Georgia. When I found out I decided to learn more
In spite of her youth, she quickly adopted the name that she went by the
rest of her life, Ma Rainey. At
first it was because she and William appeared together in his act, first with
the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and later with Tolliver’s Circus and Musical
Extravaganza. (Some of the folks
who performed with her recalled that while she might be called Ma Rainey on
stage, she much preferred the title of Madame.)
What changed Gertrude’s life, though, occurred in 1902, before she met
and married William. While
her troupe was performing at a theater in Missouri, she heard a young woman singing a
sad and haunting song about the man who up and left her in the lurch. Immediately Gertrude began to
incorporate this plaintive style into her act. And she was a hit.
While she may be known as Ma, she’s also known as the Mother of the
Blues. One of her biographers,
Sandra Lieb, explains that the blues “combined the black rural traditions of
spirituals and work songs with some of the new rhythms being developed…She sang
songs of wandering lives, broken family ties, disappointing love affairs, as
well as …humor, strength, and resilience in a new environment.” You can hear the
loneliness and longing in her lines.
Train’s at the station, I heard
the whistle blow.
Train’s at the station, I heard the whistle blow.
I done bought my ticket, but I don’t know where I’ll
Gertrude was a hit, and she quickly became a star, performing with
artists like Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Coleman Hawkins. Not to mention the jazz star Fletcher
Henderson who hailed from right down the road from Gertrude’s Columbus home. He was born in Cuthbert.
1923 saw yet another success for the singer. She signed on with Paramount as a recording
artist. She became one of the
biggest stars of the day. In her
five years with the company, she made over one-hundred recordings of her own
compositions. And many of them are
still known and performed today. In
1924, Louis Armstrong was featured on the record of Jelly Bean Blues. One of her last recordings may be
the most remembered. It was also
one of the few times she introduced comedy into a song—Ma Rainey’s Black
Times change, and tastes. In
1928 the record company let her, go saying her style was no longer in keeping
with the times. Things got
worse. As the Depression deepened
in the 1930s many theaters closed and the touring company had nowhere to
In 1933, Gertrude moved home to Columbus.
She owned and operated two theaters in Rome for a while and worked hard for the Friendship Baptist Church where she lifted up her voice in
the choir until her early death from heart disease in 1939.
The death was not noted in the press at the time. But Ma Rainey continues to hold a
special place in music history. In
1983 she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame and into
the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
The Georgia Music Hall of Fame recognized her in 1992; the next year she
was recognized as a Georgia Woman of Achievement. To cap it all off—a United States
Postage Stamp honored her in 1994.
Now how can I recognize Ma Rainey with a recipe? Here are a couple that include the names
of two of her most famous pieces. Neither one will make you sing the blues!
Black Bottom Pie
1 8-inch plain pastry crust,
1 prepared Graham cracker crumb pie
1/3 cup melted butter
4 squares semi-sweet baking
1 package vanilla pudding mix
(either cooking or instant)
2 cups milk
Heat butter and chocolate in small saucepan on medium heat, stirring
until smooth. Spread on bottom of pie crust; set aside.
pudding following package directions using milk. Spread over the chocolate. (If you use the cooked pudding allow it
to cool before spreading.) Refrigerate at least 1 hour.
Top with whipped topping or whipped cream and chocolate curls.
Jelly Bean Marshmallow Cake Bars
1 package 2-layer yellow or white
1/2 cup melted butter
3 cups miniature marshmallows
1 cup jelly beans, miniature if you
can find them
1/2 cup chopped nuts (pecans,
walnuts or peanuts)
Mix the cake mix, butter and egg until well blended. Press into the bottom of a 13x9 cake
pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 to
18 minutes, or until lightly brown.
Do not over bake.
Sprinkle marshmallows, jelly beans and nuts evenly over the cake and
return it to the oven for about 5 minutes or until the marshmallows begin to
melt. Cool completely in the pan on
a wire rack. Cut into bars and
store in an airtight container.
You may want to pick out the black jelly beans if you don’t care for
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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network