Songs of Ma Rainey

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Editor: Cynthia Rose
Date: 2004
From: American Decades Primary Sources(Vol. 1: 1900-1909. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Musical work; Work overview
Length: 988 words
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 45

Songs of Ma Rainey

"Slow Drivin' Moan";
"Moonshine Blues"


By: Ma Rainey

Date: 1923

Source: Rainey, Ma. "Slow Drivin' Moan"; "Moonshine Blues." Reprinted in Lieb, Sandra. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, 68, 91.

About the Author: Gertrude Pridgett (1886–1939) became known as "Ma Rainey" when she married performer William "Pa" Rainey in 1904. She was born in Georgia. By fourteen,Page 46  |  Top of Article
Gertrude Ma Rainey and her Georgia Jazz Band in Chicago, Illinois, 1923. Ma Rainey was one of the most successful early blues singers. ARCHIVE PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Gertrude "Ma" Rainey and her Georgia Jazz Band in Chicago, Illinois, 1923. Ma Rainey was one of the most successful early blues singers. ARCHIVE PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. she was already singing and dancing in minstrel and vaudeville stage revues. "Ma and Pa Rainey" went on tour together, calling themselves "The Assassinators of the Blues." Ma Rainey performed solo after her split with Pa Rainey, becoming the most influential female blues singer of her day.


"The Assassinators of the Blues" performed mostly with tent shows in the South. These were popular with both black and white audiences (although they sat on opposite sides of the tent). Some of the best known of these variety shows were Tolliver's Circus, The Musical Extravaganza, and The Rabbit Foot Minstrels. The blues songs comprised only part of her repertoire; Ma Rainey often sang songs in the context of a spoken-word skit. She also performed comedy and dancing routines.

Ma Rainey, known in her day as "the ugliest woman in show business," nevertheless exuded a raw sexuality that appealed to her audiences. She made a fortune from her in-demand performances. After her split with Pa Rainey, she became a solo star of TOBA (Theatre Owners Booking Agency), the African American theater circuit. Ma Rainey was an imposing figure on the stage. She was short and dark, with wild hair and gold teeth—flamboyantly dressed to dramatize the colorful protagonists she portrayed in her songs. After she became famous and rich, she wore her wealth in gold chains—loading herself with diamonds in her ears and wearing a tiara on her head. She was called "The Paramount Wildcat," as well as "The Gold Necklace Woman of the Blues." She performed throughout the South, and eventually moved north to Chicago. She also made appearances in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York. Her popularity even spread to Europe.

Ma Rainey bought a large bus to take her show on tour. She performed nonstop until 1923, when she signed a recording contract with Paramount. She went back to touring until her retirement in the mid-1930s. She had a wide-ranging repertoire of songs, but her most memorable were blues tunes such as "See, See Rider" and "Bo Weavil Blues." With the release of her first track, "Moonshine Blues," Paramount claimed that they had "discovered" Ma Rainey, although African Americans had Page 47  |  Top of Article enjoyed her performances for years.


Ma Rainey did not invent the blues, but she was one of its first recognizable performers. Rooted in the culture of rural southern African Americans that emerged from slavery, the first blues songs descended from work songs and spirituals. Ma Rainey herself was born only one generation removed from slavery. Spending most of her career on the road, she played a major role in popularizing the blues.

Ma Rainey claimed to have been singing the blues in her acts since 1902, after hearing them while touring in a small Mississippi town. The music came to be personified by the lone black man and his guitar, wandering through the South in search of work and singing about his life; this became known as the country blues. Ma Rainey's songs borrowed liberally from this "wandering" tradition. In "Slow Driving Moan," it is the woman who wants to take to the road, yet promises her man that she will eventually return home. As an entertainer who was constantly touring, Ma Rainey defied normal social expectations of women.

Ma Rainey was a pioneer on the African American entertainment circuit, influencing women's blues for generations to follow. Rainey's songs were typically assertive, exploring various perspectives on its themes; she sang of women as cavalier as men, boasting of conquests and leaving lovers behind. Ma Rainey's music provided a crucial link between country blues and popular blues, the more "sophisticated" versions later sung by performers like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters.

Primary Source: "Slow Driving Moan"; "Moonshine Blues"

SYNOPSIS: Paramount billed Ma Rainey as "The Mother of the Blues." These recordings are the only remaining form of Ma Rainey's artistic legacy. She did not write down most of her songs. Even in her live performances, Rainey changed or improvised her lyrics and phrasing of songs. The blues element of her songs often lay in the vocal delivery of the tune; she would moan, hum, and draw out notes to create an emotional pitch.

"Slow Drivin' Moan"

I've traveled 'Til I'm tired
And I ain't satisfied
I've traveled 'til I'm tired
And I ain't satisfied
If I don't find my sweet man
I'll ramble til I die.
Ah Lawdy Lawd Lawd Lawdy
Lawd Lawdy Lawd lawd Lawd
Ah Lawdy Lawd Lawd Lawdy
Lawd Lawdy Lawd Lawd Lawd
Lawd Lawdy Lawd Lawd Lawd
Lawd Lawdy Lawd Lawd Lawd.
I've got slow drivin' blues
I'm blue as I can be
I've got the slow drivin' blues
I'm blue as I can be
Don't play that Old band music
Just play the blues for me.

"Moon Shine Blues"

Now I've been drinking all night babe
and the night before
But when I get sober I ain't a-gonna drink no more
Because my best friend has left me,
I mean standing at my door
My head goes round and around babe
since my baby left town
And I don't know if the river is up or down
Now I know one thing that's certain,
mama's gonna leave this town.
You find me reeling and rocking
howlin' like a houn'
And I'm gonna catch the first train
that's goin' south bound
Cause mama don't mean to stay here
and be treated like a hound.
Now mister conductor man please
won't you stop that train
Mister conductor man won't you please sir,
please sir, stop that train
So I can go back to my home again.
I'm gonna stop running
'round and settle down
Cause I'm tired running around and
now I've got no time to lose
Tell everyone that you meet
that I've got the moonshine blues.

Further Resources


Barlow, William. Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Bogle, Donald. Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America's Black Female Superstars. New York: Harmony Books, 1980.

Lieb, Sandra. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981

Oakley, Giles. The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1977.

Oliver, Paul. Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues. New York: Stein and Day, 1970.

——. Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Stewart-Baxter, Derrick. Ma Rainey and The Classic Blues Singers. New York: Stein and Day Press, 1970.


Hirshey, Gerri and Anthony Bozza. "Women Who Rocked the World." Rolling Stone 773, November 13, 1997, 41.

Page 48  |  Top of Article

Shannon, Sandra G. "The Long Wait: August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. " Black American Literature Forum 25, no. 1, Spring 1991, 135.


Alexander, Scott. "Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey." The Red Hot Jazz Archive. Available online at ; website home page (accessed March 24, 2003).

White, Alan, and Max Haymes. The Early Blues Website. Available online at (accessed March 24, 2003).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3490200025