From the NYT:
|After Years of Neglect, Rebirth for a Blues Singer’s House |
By SHAILA DEWAN
Published: March 28, 2008
COLUMBUS, Ga. — She danced the black bottom, doled out world-weary advice and claimed to be ready with a butcher knife if she caught her lover straying. She was a whiskey-slugging contralto with raunchy songs, a sound business sense and bisexual tastes.
The City of Columbus bought Ma Rainey’s house, top, in 1991 for $5,000. Restoration work began to move forward years later after a federal grant. Items inside include er piano and a phonograph.
So a visitor to the newly opened home of Gertrude Rainey, who as Ma Rainey was the embodiment of the “big mama” blues singers of the 1920s, might be a tad disappointed to find nothing more titillating than painstakingly restored bedroom furniture and prim period wallpaper.
“She had kind of calmed down by the time she moved back here,” said Fred C. Fussell, the curator of the Ma Rainey House, which opened four months ago as a small museum in this city on the Chattahoochee River. “She wasn’t living that kind of life.”
Besides, said Mr. Fussell and Florene Dawkins, the chairwoman of the Friends of Ma Rainey, what is remarkable is not so much what the Ma Rainey House has on display (in fairness, there are also photos, minstrel show memorabilia, original recordings and theater invoices) but that the house is still standing.
“This is the house that nobody wanted,” Ms. Dawkins said.
Located in the historic black neighborhood called the Liberty District, the two-story house that Ma Rainey built for her mother at the height of her success was in slow-motion collapse in 1991, when the city bought it for $5,000. The roof had fallen in, the stairs had fallen out and Ma Rainey’s piano, painted bright green by subsequent residents, was exposed to the elements.
The city considered razing it. Many in Columbus had either forgotten Ma Rainey, one of the first professional entertainers to record the blues, or had never heard of her. The notion of cultural tourism had not yet acquired the power to turn people’s eyes into small cartoon dollar signs. But just stabilizing the house would cost $90,000. The mayor at the time, Frank Martin, cast a tie-breaking yes vote.
Mr. Martin, a white trial lawyer elected with a large part of the city’s black vote, said he was motivated in part by a sense of racial equity. “You could always promote white tourism,” he said, “but when it came to something black, people were, like, ‘Why would you do that?’ ”
Skepticism about the project, Ms. Dawkins said, was not limited to white residents. Many black people thought of the blues as the devil’s music, she said, adding, “We did dog-and-pony shows about Ma Rainey for years, and we just could not pick the momentum up.”
Restoration money was slow in coming, even after the United States Postal Service issued a Ma Rainey stamp in 1994 and B. B. King played a benefit concert for the project in 1997. Finally, a federal “Save America’s Treasures” grant for $149,000 was approved, and the city agreed to match it. The project began to move forward.
Mr. Fussell began the often frustrating process of nailing down the life and times of a woman whose birthday was listed incorrectly on her own death certificate. “There were a lot of dead ends,” he said.
The singer, born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886, left Columbus with a traveling music show in 1902. One of the musicians was William Rainey, known as Pa, and before she turned 19 she had married him and taken the name “Ma.” The couple were billed as the “Assassinators of the Blues.”
The marriage was short-lived, but Ma went on to become a well-known performer, wearing a talismanic necklace of gold $20 coins. Her songs dealt with broken hearts, cheating lovers and chain gangs, but she was always less miserable than defiant.
“Don’t like my ocean, don’t fish in my sea,” she sang in a song she wrote with Bessie Smith. “Stay out of my valley, and let my mountain be.”
As a professional entertainer, Ma Rainey incorporated many musical styles, but Mr. Fussell said her cavalier attitude was a reflection of the place where she grew up. “The blues in the Chattahoochee region is lively, it’s frivolous, there’s a lot of dance music — what they call ‘play party’ music,” he said. “There’s not a lot of woe-is-me.”
Ma Rainey — known to theatergoers through the 1982 August Wilson play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — was a strong influence on many other musicians, in particular, one of her accompanists, Louis Armstrong.
“His facial expression, his singing, his very stage presence were all vivid reminders of Ma,” wrote Thomas Fulbright, a white itinerant actor who met Ma Rainey while performing in East Texas oil towns. “He sounds like her, and when he opens his mouth and stretches his lips across his teeth in that certain way, he even looks like her.”
The end of Ma Rainey’s career began with the stock market crash of 1929, but not before she recorded “Prove It On Me Blues,” often cited as a watershed moment for the frank acknowledgment of lesbian desire. (“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.”) In 1935, she returned to Georgia, where she owned two theaters and lived in the house in Columbus until she died in 1939.
Now that the house has opened to the public, with warm kudos and financial support from the city, Mr. Fussell and Ms. Dawkins like to joke that Ma Rainey’s obscurity in her own hometown actually helped their cause. “If they had known a little bit more about her,” Mr. Fussell said, “they would have been more opposed than they were.”