Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Chance Encounter With Ma Rainey

I'll begin this post as so many bloggers have over the years: It's been a long time since my last post. I'll try not to let that happen again. Now, on to business:

Yesterday I drove the 90 miles or so from Atlanta to Columbus, Georgia to hunt for 78s and do some geocaching. Columbus in a nice little city; the downtown area is pretty healthy, mostly due to the large number of Columbus State University students spending their money, I imagine. After looking around downtown for awhile, I drove down 5th Avenue and was surprised to see a historical marker proclaiming "Ma Rainey Home."

Ma Rainey was one of the seminal blues performers and recording artists, although "seminal" seems like an odd adjective to apply to a woman. She was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus in 1886 - earlier, notice, than either Charley Patton or Blind Lemon Jefferson. She was singing the blues on tours throughout the South by the time she was 20, and was one of the first Southern blues singers to record - although Bessie Smith beat her to the studios by ten months. Rainey recorded 111 released sides (including alternate takes); unfortunately, her entire recording career was for Paramount Records, famous for the poor quality of their recordings and pressings. But enough of her voice comes through the lousy sound to make it clear that she was the real deal - a strong, earthy singer who sounds like she grew up with the blues.

I had forgotten that this great woman was from Columbus. By the time my brain had processed what I had just seen, I had passed the house. I quickly backed up, pulled over and got out of the car. I read the marker several times, and stared at the house for awhile. It's a large house - I suspect Rainey rented out rooms - and it's painted yellow, as it apparently was when Rainey lived there between her retirement in 1935 and death in 1939. The house is now a museum, but I didn't know that - there was nothing to indicate that it was open to the public. So I just stared.

The marker indicated that Porterdale Cemetery, where Rainey is buried, was nearby. I found the cemetery about a half mile away. Three guys were digging a grave near the entrance, so I pulled over and asked where Ma Rainey's grave was, and one of them showed me. Rainey is buried between two of her Pridgett sisters; each has a concrete slab over her grave. Ma's just reads "Gertrude Rainey" and the date of her death, but she also has a nice new headstone proclaiming her status as "Mother of the Blues."

After visiting the grave, I had the urge to drive back by the house while playing some Ma Rainey music. This was all unplanned, so I didn't have any Rainey CDs with me, but I had brought Allen Lowe's idiosyncratic blues history box set Really the Blues? as road music, so I found "Don't Fish in My Sea" and cranked it up.

It was very cool to run across Rainey's house more or less by chance, and to be led to her gravesite by the plaque. I'm planning to go back before too long, actually visit the museum and take some pictures.

At the cemetery, I had a gut-wrenching moment not directly related to Ma Rainey. Porterdale Cemetery was a burying ground for the black residents of Columbus - for most of the South's history, segregation didn't end with death. Near Rainey's grave was the grave of an infant. The headstone was inscribed with the child's given name (which I don't remember), the date of her death (1858) and "Kizzie's Baby." No last names. I thought it was odd, until it hit me - Kizzie and her child didn't have last names. They were slaves. You can't live down here without frequently thinking about the terrible history of the region, but it was a powerful experience to unexpectedly come across the raw evidence of human slavery - not in a museum, not in a book, but while just wandering around.

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