transcending silence... 2006 Issue

Return to: Archives


“Prove it on me”- Topics in the Blues Music of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith



Sarah Whipple*



Within the confines of these pages there will be an examination of the issues that women of the 1920's and 1930's faced, as presented by the blues songs* of "Ma" Gertrude Rainey and Bessie Smith. Overt themes found throughout their lyrics include physical and mental abuse, differing gender roles, taboo sexual relationships, heartbreak and advice about men. These provide a well-documented look at the lives of African-American women of that period. By looking at the work of Rainey and Smith, we can get a better understanding of how femininity and gender identity was viewed during the era of blues.

Not only will you be exploring the text, but you will be allowed to listen to the actual songs being described.




I. Introduction

II. The “Herstory” of Rainey, Smith and the Blues

III. “Sweet Rough Man”- Domestic Abuse and the Blues

IV. “If You Don’t Have Me”- Revenge in Female Blues Music

V. “Trust No Man”- Smith, Rainey and Wariness of Men

VI. Gender Roles in the Blues Music of Rainey and Smith

VII. Conclusion



I. Introduction[Return]

The lights come up in a dimly-lit club someplace deep in the South. It is a stiflingly hot summer night, yet the tiny venue is packed with sweating patrons. When a singer takes the stage, she makes them forget the heat along with all of their other problems. Her deep, soulful voice provides a temporary release for these people struggling just to survive in the unfriendly climate of the pre-World War II South. Her songs were of love, rejection, humiliation and strength, relating deeply to the lives of her audience. As they stand up, applaud, cry and scream, the audience recognizes one thing: this woman, the “Mother of the Blues,” represents something completely new.

During the second and third decades of the twentieth century there were women who had the same effect as the afore-mentioned mythical songstress of the African American population in the United States. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith were pioneers and inspirations. Rainey was credited with being the “Mother of the Blues,” a role that gave her some power since it meant that she was recognized as an innovator. She and Smith represented women who had never been present in American society before: they were strong, successful, black and female. Through their songs and their lives they were able to inspire, challenge and change the post- World War II society. During the early part of the 20 th century these women were just as well known and accepted as their male musical counterparts. Yet since the end of the blues era of the 1920s and 1930s, their influence and brilliance has been largely forgotten. While the recent resurgence of blues-based popular music has brought interest in early blues artists, the focus has been mostly on the male members of the blues community (for example, a book titled The Bluesmen: the Story of the Men Who Made the Blues, focuses 150 pages on male blues stars and only affords one for both Rainey and Smith). This does not mean that Rainey and Smith are any less important in their medium. In fact, these women were the ones who helped to create the sound on which male artists would later build.

In this essay, I intend to examine the issues that women of the 1920s and 1930s faced, as presented by the blues songs of Rainey and Smith. These depictions sometimes correlate with the standards of the time, but in other instances they verge on taboo. I examine the songs and lives of Rainey and Smith because they provide a well-documented look at the lives of African-American women, and women in general, at the time. Their songs provide ideas of the lives of “ordinary” women (that is, women perceived as occupying socially accepted roles). However, their lives provide us with a picture of women in a prominent social position. By looking at the work of Rainey and Smith, we can get a better understanding of how femininity and gender identity were viewed at a specific time.


II. The “Herstory” of Rainey, Smith and the Blues [Return]

Both Rainey and Smith had a wealth of experience to draw from, when singing, that allowed them to bring their music to life. The lives of women such as Smith and Rainey make up another part of the blues legacy. They represent something unique in society: women who were influenced by the world in which they lived, but were also capable of changing the world in their own right.

The child who would become Ma Rainey was born as Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia on April 26 th, 1886[1]. This was the environment that no doubt fueled Rainey’s career- the Deep South just two generations removed from slavery. We have sketchy information about Rainey’s youth, but what is known shines light on what shaped her personality and love of music. Rainey came from a musical family; her grandmother had been a fairly popular performer just after the Civil War[2]. It is from this strong and “very stately lady” that Rainey inherited her early talent[3]. By the age of 14, Rainey’s innate talent had become obvious. From a start in church tent shows, Rainey’s popularity quickly increased. Then in 1902, at just 16, she added to her musical cannon what would soon define her career: the early blues. Two years later she married a popular performer named “Pa” Rainey, christened herself with the name “Ma” (the significance of which will be discussed later), and began her long career.

The blues is self-explanatory; fundamentally it is about sadness and pain. One of the possible origins for the term “blues” may be from the 18 th-century British term “blue devils”- which referred to the state of deep mental depression[4]. During the years between the Civil War and the Second World War, African-American women were experts in both mental and social depression. They were often viewed as second rate citizens, lacking both power and social standing. This is implicitly understood in female blues music. The discrepancy in power becomes a fundamental issue of both Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey’s blues. Sometimes debated, other times embraced and still more often lamented, the fact that women of color were the underdogs of society is what gave them the leverage to make strong, protesting blues music.

The life of Bessie Smith reflects an intimate understanding of the blues. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, probably on April 15, 1894; the date probably will never be verified, since Smith was known to lower her age in the later years of her life. She was born into abject poverty, the seventh child in a family of eight. Unlike the uneventful early life of Gertrude Rainey, the early life of Bessie Smith was marked by extreme tragedy. By the age of nine, her mother, father and older brother had all died, leaving her oldest sister to raise the family. At a very young age, Smith also began to support her family. She and her brother Andrew eventually became street performers. By all accounts they were a sensation. Bessie in particular was very successful due to her wit and personality[5]. It was these experiences that served as the fuel for her monumental career.

The early influences that shaped the lives of these female blues singers led them to create a unique form of music. Some themes were present in blues music that had never been covered before. There was nothing coy about the way that controversial issues were tackled by Rainey and Smith- they were frank in both their language and delivery. Prominent themes include abuse (which brought into play the socially accepted ideas of femininity), differing gender roles, taboo sexual relationships, heartbreak and advice about men. In the following sections I will analyze the songs of Rainey and Smith, observing how these themes connect with the world of their time.


III. “Sweet Rough Man”- Domestic Abuse and the Blues[Return]

In blues music, abuse was almost always a part of a woman’s life. Most of Smith and Rainey’s songs were written in response to physical or mental abuse at the hands of their lovers. While many refer to a “mistreater” or someone who is “wronging” the female narrator of the song, their crime is hardly ever explicitly stated. When Rainey and Smith make exceptions to this in their songs, the results are chilling. Ma Rainey’s “Sweet Rough Man,”(Audio Listings 1) written by J. Sammy Randall, is one of the most chilling examples of violence in music: “I woke up this mornin’, my head as sore as a boil/ My man beat me last night with five feet of copper coil”- even these two opening lines of the song speak volumes. The first two stanzas of “Sweet Rough Man” describe the injuries that the narrator has suffered at the hands of her lover. After this declaration of pain, however, she goes on to say that “the way he love me makes me soon forget.” It is obvious from Rainey’s tone and reflection that the lyrics of the song are deeply felt. Rainey tells her audience that she has stayed with her man for five years of mistreatment because of the fleeting pleasure of sex that he gives her.

In the songs of both Rainey and Smith, this forgiving nature becomes a theme. Smith early echoes Rainey’s words in “Outside of That,”(Audio Listings 2) penned by Clarence Williams (a prominent singer and producer in his own right) [6]. Like the narrator of the previous song, the subject of Smith’s piece is repeatedly abused but seems oblivious to her own pain. Instead her blackened eyes and knocked-out teeth are repeatedly contrasted with her “shivers” when he touches her. In Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues, Part I”(Audio Listings 3) (again, written by a man), the female narrator wakes up alone, only to return to thinking of how her man has loved her in the past. Women in early blues songs are repeatedly left, beaten, cheated on, and ignored, only to forgive their lover because of his sexual prowess. In songs such as these, we see the cycle of abuse that exists in the present day, regardless of ethnicity: it is perceived that the abused woman, though hurt, will always take back her man because he shows her even the slightest affection.

This acceptance of physical abuse in female-oriented blues songs has a place in the social climate of the time. Starting in the 1970's, women began to discuss rape, verbal, sexual and physical abuse openly: however, it was rarely discussed in the blues era. Domestic abuse was a private matter and much was done to keep it that way. There was very little contemporary literature on the subject of domestic violence because even the upper-class female activists who were in a position to bring attention to the issue were afraid of its taboo nature. The fact that the female blues artists even sang about this issue is a testament to their bravery.

The 1920's and 1930's saw domestic violence at an all time high. At the end of the previous century, the Victorian “condemnation of emotions” meant the rage that prompted domestic abuse was carefully veiled, or at least never publicly discussed. By two decades later, popular novels were beginning to include depictions of violence against women. In James Steven’s contemporary novel Brawny-Man, the main character says that his lover likes that “I was burly and rough and used my muscle to make her sit on my lap”[7]. This depiction is shocking in its blasé description of violence and also in its undertones of sexuality. A parallel development of the post-World War I era was the new closeness of the sexes. With the end of the Victorian restraint of emotions, came a new sense of sensuality in couples. Out of this came the kind of violence depicted in blues songs: the domestic abuse that is filled with sexual innuendoes and is often immediately followed by discussions of a man’s sexual prowess.

Another reason that violence against women became an accepted topic in early blues songs goes along with the surge in women’s rights during the era. Women were no longer innocent; they no longer needed male protection. Instead of deploring men who could not restrain their emotions, society began to blame women for their lovers’ violent behaviors. After all, if women wanted the rights of a man, wanted to dress like a man and act like a man, why should they not receive the same punishment as men? In 1939, a Reverend Goodsell of Portland, Oregon said that “If a woman is going to regard herself as man’s equal, she must not expect favors and considerations because of her sex.” This idea became so prevalent that during the 1930's even social workers began holding women responsible for their own domestic abuse[8]. All of this brought the culture of abuse to a place where it was accepted into the public sphere, and a discussion of the issues surrounding it became possible.

Yet it is also important to recognize that women were not helpless victims in the physical abuse narrative. They did not sit back and bemoan their ill treatment at the hands of men. Instead they engaged in a common blues process: naming things that are a physical or psychological threat to the singer[9]. By doing this, the singer creates a shared problem that can be addressed in a public context. In this context, the songs of Smith and Rainey are protest songs. They bring knowledge of a problem into the public sphere and acknowledge the fact that something has to be done to effect a change. Sometimes, the singers themselves provide ideas for this change. In the following section I will analyze several songs in which women respond to their lovers’ abuse and neglect.


IV- “If You Don’t Have Me”- Revenge in Female Blues Music [Return]

In other songs by Smith and Rainey there is another picture of the female response to abuse. Sometimes the narrators of these songs do not love their man in spite of his violent behavior. In quite a few songs, the heroine decides to get even with the lover who wronged her. She usually does this through threats of violence even more severe than what the man has inflicted on her. In “Sleep Talking Blues,”(Audio Listings 4) penned by Rainey and frequent collaborator J. Sammy Randall, Ma Rainey hears her man talking in his sleep. She warns him against saying too much, because if he lets another woman’s name slip, she will take it as a sign of his infidelity. Instead of accepting her fate like the women in the previous songs, she makes some rather bold threats on his life: “If you speak out of turn, your friends will hear about you being dead,” is a strong statement of what will happen to a cheating man. The subject of Bessie Smith’s “Them’s Graveyard Words” also threatens to take her partner’s life when she finds that she has been replaced. Another perspective on the idea of wronged-woman-gets-revenge can be found in Ma Rainey’s “See See Rider Blues.”(Audio Listings 5) Instead of the typical theme, this song focuses on the response of the “other woman.” Distraught after seeing her lover’s girl return, she goes off to buy a gun because, “If he don’t have me, he won’t have no gal at all.” This idea of a woman being strong enough to treat her man as she has been treated goes against the previous idea of the woman accepting her own ill treatment. Certainly, there was little social basis for this idea at the time. The typical gender role for women specified that they displayed no violence or aggression. Therefore, it is legitimate to think that through these songs, Smith and Rainey presented an idea of what women could be like. They could act the way their men would, even more dominant.

In male penned blues songs, some women do take revenge on their cheating partner. In Ishman Bracely’s “Saturday Blues,” the narrator discusses the way his “regular woman” acts with one of his “sometimes women.” “She’s the meanest woman I’ve ever seen,” he sings, “And when I asked for water gimme gasoline.” However, in songs such as these, the wronged women’s actions are less drastic than those threatened in female blues songs[10].

In the songs of Rainey and Smith, the women infrequently followed through on their threats of violence. When they do, most of the narrators react in the same way. In Bessie Smith’s “Sing Sing Prison Blues”(Audio Listings 6) she sings of a woman who kills her lover after a fight. She is sent to prison for her crime. Instead of proclaiming her innocence or even lamenting being locked up for a crime of self-defense, she accepts her punishment willingly. The last line, “I killed my man and I don’t need no bail,” is typical of the sentiment in the rest of the song. She does not express remorse for what she had done, but she nonetheless recognizes that she will be receiving a punishment fitting her crime. In these songs, the man who was earlier the villain for inflicting abuse on his lover takes on a new role. After his death he becomes a “good man,” certainly not what he was considered in life.


V- “Trust No Man”- Smith, Rainey, and Wariness of Men [Return]

Even though the most frequent subject of a wronged woman’s rage in blues songs was her cheating man, the female singers were not as hostile towards other women as to not offer them a little bit of advice. Rainey and Smith penned and sang beautiful examples of songs directed to black women as a community. The subject of these songs is the same as most blues songs, but they offered personal advice on how to deal with men. Most of the time, the singer’s advice was to keep men distant. Ma Rainey’s “Trust No Man,” (Audio Listings 7) written by Lillian Hardaway Henderson, begins “I want all you women to listen to me/ Don’t trust your man no further’n your eye can see.” She advocates taking everything that a man is willing to give but keeping an eye on him to keep him from cheating. In Bessie Smith’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,”(Audio Listings 8) she takes a slightly more optimistic approach to relations between the sexes, but still recommends affection to keep a man close. However, Smith regains her venom in the self penned song “Safety Mama.” In this song she even goes so far as to tell her female audience just how they should treat their cheating man. These songs represent a change from the typical competition over men in both Smith and Rainey’s songs and show an early shadow of the idea of “sisterhood” that would become prevalent in the era of the Women’s Movement, as would the more liberated gender roles demonstrated in the next section.


VI- Gender Roles in the Blues Music of Rainey and Smith [Return]

Even as early as the 1920's, female blues singers let loose ideas of sexuality and gender roles that were quite different from those of the Victorian era that ended just a few years before. Both Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith discussed these topics quite frankly in their songs. The most famous of Rainey’s songs dealing with sex is “Prove It On Me Blues,”(Audio Listings 9) in which homosexuality is handled frankly: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/ They must’ve been women ‘cause I don’t like no men,” she sings, and there is no mistaking the meaning of these lines. She goes on to describe how she wears masculine clothing, which was socially prohibited throughout the 20’s and 30’s in American culture. Rainey addresses homosexuality again in the song “Sissy Blues,” in which she describes seeing her lover in the arms of another man. In the lyrics she details gender roles different from ones accepted by society-“My man’s got a sissy, his name is Miss Kate” she says, assigning a female name to an obviously male figure. While these songs seem shocking for the time in which they were created, Rainey and Smith are actually accepting and “normalizing” homosexuality by engaging in a dialogue and bringing it into the open.

Other songs by Smith and Rainey acknowledge a difference from traditional gender roles. Bessie Smith’s “Easy Come Easy Go Blues”(Audio Listings 10) includes a narrator who is frustrated by her “woman actin’ man.” The men in this song act like “a bunch of women, they just gabbin’, gabbin’, gabbin’, away” and are “skippin’, twistin’.” In Ma Rainey’s “Barrel House Blues,” she says that her “Papa likes his bourbon, mama loves her gin/ Papa likes his outside women, mama likes her outside men.” The lyrics to these songs are important because they put men and women on a level playing field in terms of sexual strength and sexual roles. They show the traditionally masculine and feminine roles as interchangeable or combinable. All this is detailed in songs written and sung at least thirty years before the struggle for female equality began in earnest.

In an advertisement for the controversial “Prove It On Me Blues,” Rainey pushes the costume envelope to the other extreme. Rainey is shown in the ad enacting the lyrics to the song: she is standing on a street corner dressed in a jacket, hat and tie. She is obviously flirting with two women while a police officer looks on. Again, the image that she is putting out of herself makes an undeniable social and sexual statement. The lyrics of “Prove It On Me Blues” feature a lesbian heroine, but with this advertisement Rainey makes it clear that she is the person that the song glorifies.

At the time that Ma Rainey was making her music in the South, similar styles were beginning to develop in Harlem, New York both musically and culturally. Of the early movers and shakers of the Harlem blues movement were socially conscious African American women much like Rainey, and some of them dressed in the way that Rainey did in the “Prove It on Me Blues” advertisement. This was the earliest emergence of what would later be defined as the “butch” style—sensible shoes, straightforward cuts and unadorned structures. However, there is a debate intrinsic to this style of dressing that is applicable in Rainey’s case. While some believe that the “butch” role represents something new and unique, others think that it is just an imitation of a heterosexual relationship, with the “butch” woman occupying the male gender role. Similarly, in this advertisement, is Rainey trying to project herself as a lesbian (as would be insinuated from the women in this picture) or as simply possessing the strength to occupy a male role? Rainey’s personal life, filled with mystery, gives us little idea of what really may have been going on. Instead we are left with her music- the music that is ambiguous and groundbreaking.

Earlier in her career, Rainey took measures to present herself in an equally sexual, if more socially acceptable, fashion. A photograph of Rainey with her band taken by Michael Ochs in 1923 shows her as amazed audiences must have seen. She was a short, thick woman who was not conventionally attractive. Yet she was able to make herself into something special. She wears a sparkling cocktail dress with a necklace of coins and a feather fan. Even the stage name that she chose plays into this idea. “Ma,” a shortened form of “mama,” conjures up an image to go along with her individualistic sense of style. In African-American communities of the South at the time, the word “mama” had taken on a meaning outside of the traditional maternal one. This meaning was lush, sensual, voluptuous, something exchanged between lovers. This word would soon be incorporated into blues music itself, but before that Rainey made it hers. She wanted to make a statement, to be noticed, make an impression on anyone who ever saw her. The look that she put forward was one of luxury and sexuality, both of which were new and controversial ideas for an African-American woman.

Bessie Smith attempted to conjure up a similar image early in her career. In a photo taken just after she signed her first record deal with Columbia in 1923, Smith is seen wearing a feathered headdress, an expensive-looking gown and striking a regal-looking pose. She is presented in a way that makes her into the picture of affluence and happiness. The fact was that Smith’s life was not the picture of calm elegance. Even after her rocky childhood, Smith’s life was not easy. From an early age, she had a love of liquor, especially the homemade “white lightening.” Even during prohibition, Smith’s drinking verged on alcoholism[11]. Even the end of Smith’s career was marked by tragedy, again the opposite of the easy, affluent image that she attempted to project. By the time that the 1930's rolled around, Smith had been largely forgotten in the music world. It was clear that the hopes that she had once held to cross over into American popular music were gone[12]. Then in 1933, after a two year absence from music, Smith attended what would be her last recording session. These sessions helped to rejuvenate her stagnant career[13].

Sadly, just four years into Smith’s return to music, tragedy struck. On September 26, 1937, Smith was involved in a car crash. She was terribly mutilated and was in need of immediate medical attention. Smith was rushed to the black ward of a local hospital, where she died around mid-day[14]. Her funeral in Philadelphia was one of the more spectacular ones in the city’s history[15]. In death she was finally able to project the image of the star that she had always longed to be.

Bessie Smith’s and Ma Rainey’s willingness to discuss sexuality, especially homosexuality, was very unusual for the time. According to essayist Michele Mitchell, many African American women in the early part of the 20 th century chose to create a “culture of dissemblance.” Responding to the stereotype of African Americans as a hyper-sexual race and to the reoccurrence of white-on-black rape, they decided to keep the sexual parts of their lives intensely private. This idea became widely accepted in middle and upper class African American communities. This cultural practice helped many women to interact efficiently in a racially charged world. Dissemblance became a part of what many African American women considered acceptable behavior[16]. Thus, the manner in which Rainey deals frankly with sexuality is surprising at a time when society dictated that an African American woman avoid any and all discussions about her sexual life.


VII. Conclusion [Return]

The blues was undoubtedly unlike anything that had been seen before. It was more sensual, more violent, and more fun than any other form of music, and the most explicitly American yet. The issues that it approached were ones that had never been addressed before, and the fact that they were approached from a female perspective made them even more unique. As creators and public figures, Rainey and Smith matched the passion of the blues music. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were able to bring something new and female to a genre in development. They were the biggest talents of the genre early on, and though their impact on the sphere of blues music has largely been forgotten, their talent will always stand on its own.



*Please note that when clicking on the links for the music it is not directly linked to the songs but a listing of where the song can be found. You must scroll down the list to find the song being mentioned.

1 Sandra Lieb, 1981. Mother of the Blues. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2.

2 Derrick Stewart-Baxter, 1970. Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers. New York: Stien and Day Publishers, 36.

3 Lieb, 3

4 Angela Y Davis, 1998. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. New York: Pantheon Books, 113

5 Chris Albertson, 2003. Bessie. New Haven: Yale University Press., 8-9.

6 Samuel Charters, 1967. The Bluesmen. New York: Oak Publications, 72

7 Peterson del Mar, 1996. What Trouble I Have Seen: A History of Violence Against Women. Cambridge: Harvard University Press., 114-115.

8 Del Mar, 116

9 Davis, 33

10 Charter, 131

11 Davis, 22

12 ibid, 15

13 Albertson, 228.

14 Stewart-Baxter, 51-52.

15 Albertson, 2.

16 Michele Mitchell, 2000. Silences Broken, Silences Kept: Gender and Sexuality in African American History. In Gender and History. Ed. Lenore Davidoff, Keith McClelland, and Eleni Varikas.15-26. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 18-19.



Albertson, Chris.2003. Bessie. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Charters, Samuel. 1967. The Bluesmen. New York: Oak Publications.

Davis, Angela Y. 1998. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. New York: Pantheon Books

del Mar, Peterson. 1996. What Trouble I Have Seen: A History of Violence Against Women. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jones, Leroi. 1963. Blues People. New York: William Marrow and Company.

Lieb, Sandra R. 1981. Mother of the Blues. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

Mitchell, Michele. 2000. Silences Broken, Silences Kept: Gender and Sexuality in African American History. In Gender and History. Ed. Lenore Davidoff, Keith McClelland, and Eleni Varikas.15-26. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers.

Rainey, Gertrude (“Ma”). Austin, Lovie. Barrel House Blues. Paramount, 1923.

----. Prove It On Me Blues. Paramount, 1928.

----. Arant. See See Rider Blues. Paramount, 1924.

----. Sissy Blues. Paramount, 1926.

----. Randall. Sleep Talking Blues. Paramount, 1928.

----. Henderson, Lil. Trust No Man . Paramount, 1926.

Smith, Bessie. Johnson, J.C. Empty Bed Blues Part 1. Columbia, 1928.

----. Brown, E & W. Jackson. Easy Come Easy Go Blues. Columbia, 1924.

----. Green, Eddie. A Good Man is Hard to Find. Columbia, 1927.

----. Trent, J.K. & Clarence Williams. Outside of That. Columbia, 1923.

----. Grainger, Porter & Freddie Johnson. Sing Sing Prison Blues. Columbia, 1924.

Stewart-Baxter, Derrick. 1970. Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers. New York: Stien and Day Publishers.


*Sarah Whipple is a freshman at the University at Albany majoring in English with a double minor in Journalism and Communications. During the spring of 2006 she was enrolled in Professor Vivien Ng's class "History of Women and Social Change.” The class, along with her interests in music and history, was the inspiration for this piece. In the future, she plans to pursue a career in journalism. [Return]


Edited by: Angie Torres and Nicole Wan




Back to Top