On this day December 22: Ma Rainey ‘Folks say I’m crooked’


ma rainey mother of the blues siddy blues prove it on me blues

On this day December 22 1939, Ma Rainey died. Her 100+ recordings include the explicitly lesbian ‘Prove It On Me Blues’ and ‘Sissy Blues’ about her boyfriend sleeping with a man named Miss Kate.

Born in the 1880s, Gertrude Pridgett took her stage name from an early marriage and stage partnership with musician Will Rainey. Ma Rainey’s powerful vocals and energetic and charismatic stage performances made her a star. She put on one hell of a show, resplendent in sequins and feathers and cracking jokes between songs.

During the Jazz Age, she sometimes performed in Harlem, famed for its queer black nightlife. The Interstate Tattler documented one of the era’s notorious drag balls.

“Of course, a costume ball can be a very tame thing but when all the exquisitely gowned women on the floor are men and a number of the smartest men are women, ah then, we have something over which to thrill and grow round-eyed.”

The Mother of the Blues later became notorious for her bisexuality, apparently arrested in 1925 in the midst of a lesbian orgy. Three years later, she sang about the incident in the explicitly lesbian ‘Prove It On Me Blues’.

Prove It On Me Blues

Went out last night, had a great big fight.
Everything seemed to go on wrong.
I looked up, to my surprise.
The gal I was with was gone.

Where she went, I don’t know.
I mean to follow everywhere she goes;
Folks say I’m crooked. I didn’t know where she took it.
I want the whole world to know

They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.
Sure got to prove it on me;
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.

It’s true I wear a collar and a tie.
Makes the wind blow all the while.
Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.
You sure got to prove it on me.

Say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.
Sure got to prove it on me.
I went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
It must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.

ma rainey prove it on me sissy blues
Image: Chicago Defender

Paramount Records frequently commissioned custom artwork to advertise Ma’s songs and the ad for ‘Prove It On Me Blues’ pulled no punches. It showed Ma Rainey dressed in masculine hat, tie and jacket, no doubt something of a shock to audiences accustomed to her glamourous stage presence. She chats to two pretty little things on the street while a cop lurks in the background. The accompanying blurb asks what’s going on.

“What’s all this? Scandal? Maybe so, but you wouldn’t have thought it of Ma Rainey. But look at that cop watching her. What does it all mean? But Ma just sings ‘Prove It On Me’.”

Sissy Blues

In her 1925 recording, ‘Sissy Blues’, Ma sang about waking up and trying to ring her man but not getting through. She then discovers that’s because he’s sleeping with a man called Miss Kate, probably a drag queen.

I dreamed last night I was far from harm,
Woke up and found my man in a sissy’s arms.
“Hello, Central, it’s ’bout to run me wild,
Can I get that number, or will I have to wait a while?”

Some are young, some are old.
My man says sissy’s got good jelly roll.
“Hello, Central, it’s ’bout to run me wild,
Can I get that number, or will I have to wait a while?”

My man got a sissy, his name is Miss Kate.
He shook that thing like jelly on a plate.
“Hello, Central, it’s ’bout to run me wild,
Can I get that number, or will I have to wait a while?”

Now all the people ask me why I’m all alone.
A sissy shook that thing and took my man from me.
“Hello, Central, it’s ’bout to run me wild,
Can I get that number, or will I have to wait a while?”

When her recording career ended in the late twenties, Ma Rainey took to the road in a massive touring show. She bought her own bus to accommodate the 25 musicians, dancers and comedians in her review. She retired home to Georgia in 1935 and bought three local theatres. However, the recording industry still hankered after her talent. Just days before her death, numerous newspapers carried reports that a Columbia talent scout was driving south to entice her back to work.

John Hammond, later instrumental to the careers of artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Billie Holiday, wanted Ma to “come out of retirement to sing for the jitterbugs.”

Read more: December 21 <— On this day —> December 23

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