The Story of Blues Legend Ma Rainey

3 min read

| By Andrea Drouillard |

I confess. I’ve given into guilty-pleasure binge-watching during the pandemic: Schitt’s Creek, Selling Sunset, and Tiger King, to name a few. I’ve also enjoyed period pieces, such as Bridgerton and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Period pieces always leave me wanting to know more. So I set out to learn more about Ma Rainey—I was curious to know if she ever performed in Detroit. I learned that the Koppin Theater hosted Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, “and many of the blues women who popularized the blues on an unprecedented level in the 1920s.”1 The theater was located in “Paradise Valley” and “served as the center of vaudeville blues in Detroit.”1 The Koppin was part of the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.), or black vaudeville circuit.

Ma Rainey was signed by Paramount Records in 1923 and became one of the first artists to record the blues—eventually recording more than 100 songs.2 August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom ”two-act drama tells the story of a recording session with blues legend Ma Rainey, her band members, and the white producer and agent who made themselves wealthy through Rainey’s recordings. The play explores race relations between blacks and whites in 1920s America and the African-American search for identity. The title comes from the song of the same name, which is at the heart of a major conflict in the play.”3

To learn more about Ma Rainey or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, explore the following Gale eBook titles, all of which are available in the Best of Gale eBook Subscription for public libraries:

More interesting reading about Ma Rainey:
Time: Ma Rainey Is Best Known as a Pioneer of the Blues. But She Broke More Than Musical Barriers
Rolling Stone: Ma Rainey: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘The Mother of the Blues’

1. Kernodle, Tammy L. “Detroit, Michigan.” In Encyclopedia of African American Music, edited by Emmett G. Price, III, 277‒286. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011. Gale eBooks (accessed January 24, 2021).
2. Radesky, Caroline. “Harlem Renaissance.” In Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) History, edited by Howard Chiang et al., 638‒644. Vol. 2. Farmington Hills, MI: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2019. Gale eBooks (accessed January 24, 2021).
3. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In Drama for Students, edited by David M. Galens, 131‒157. Vol. 15. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2002. Gale eBooks (accessed January 24, 2021).

Meet the Author

Andrea Drouillard

Andrea Drouillard is a sales director for K‒12 and public library markets at Gale. She’s a mom, music lover, lipstick hoarder, gardener, and street art enthusiast who is always happiest by the water.

Follow @AndreaD_EdTech

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