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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 housekeepers? 

            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 about her.

            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 go.

            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 Bottom.

            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 perform.

            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, baked

Or

1 prepared Graham cracker crumb pie crust

1/3 cup melted butter

4 squares semi-sweet baking chocolate

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.

Prepare the 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 cake mix

1/2 cup melted butter

1 egg

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 licorice.

           


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