An assertive song of lesbian self-affirmation.
The ad pictures a large woman in a collar and tie, tailored suit jacket, and masculine-looking hat and vest, talking to two slender women in femme drag; a policeman watches. The ad's text, which identifies the large woman in the illustration as Rainey, coyly asks:
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."
As a performer, Rainey did sing as a variety of characters. In the greatest number of her 92 recorded songs, she appeared as a sex-loving, misused and abused, depressed and angry, man-loving woman.
But the evidence of lesbianism in Rainey's life, and the ad linking the performer Ma Rainey with the singer-narrator of "Prove It on Me Blues," strongly suggest the merging of Ma with the butch whose song she sang.
At the very time when Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness was being suppressed in the United States as obscene, African-American audiences could apparently appreciate lesbianism in a performer and a song's narrator. "Songs of unconventional sexuality," says Sandra Lieb, "were not unusual in the blues and in live black entertainment." Nor were raunchy songs of conventional sex.
Rainey's own composition "Sissy Blues" was a matter-of-fact complaint by a woman whose male lover was stolen by a "sissy" man, "Miss Kate. " Several recordings exist of a song about lesbians, "Bull Dyker's Dream."
Most telling, perhaps, at the bottom of the ad for "Prove It on Me Blues" is a record-company offer of "favorite spirituals." Pious hymns coexisted peacefully in the same Afro-American universe as this bawdy musical boast of lesbianism.
Between 1923 and 1928, Rainey "leapt from Southern minstrel star to national recording artist." Then, in the late 1920s, Lieb tells us, show business "became more centralized" and was "increasingly controlled by larger corporations." These tried to satisfy a "mainstream and Puritanical taste." The "entire entertainment industry" moved "closer to traditional white middle-class values." Rainey "slowly faded into obscurity in the early '30s." On December 22, 1939, at the age of 53, Rainey died of heart disease.
50th Anniversary of Rainey's Death
On December 22, 1989, the 50th anniversary of Rainey's death, I suggested in a history column in The Advocate that fans of the blue's singer mark the day by turning up the volume and playing her "Prove It on Me Blues" for all the world to hear.
Lyrics: Ma Rainey: 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.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man
Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.
1 Adapted from Jonathan Ned Katz, "Singing the 'Bull Dyker's' Blues," The Advocate, July 18, 1989, pages 48-49. Copyright by Katz.
Baxter, Derrick S. Ma Rainey & the Classic Blues Singers. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1970.
Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies & Black Feminism. New York, Pantheon Books, 1998.
Gates, Henry Lewis; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. African American Lives. 2004.
Katz, Jonathan Ned. "Singing the 'Bull Dyker's' Blues." The Advocate, July 18, 1989, pp. 48-49.
Lieb, Sandra. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.
Oliver, Paul, "Rainey, Ma (née Pridgett, Gertrude)," Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. New York: Oxford University Press.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History, 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.