sntk: Ma Rainey, “Prove It On Me”
When I found out that I had a floating holiday that I hard to burn and my last opportunity to use it was Veteran’s Day I decided to use it for a little road trip, even if I did have a trip to New York and Boston on the books for a few days later. I’ve developed a fondness for driving around small southern towns with a good soundtrack and I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity. I discovered the May Rainey house in Columbus after the Mississippi Blues trip this past spring and had big plans of getting there during the summer with the BFF and it never happened, even though Columbus is only about a couple hours away from Atlanta.
The Ma Rainey House
805 5th Ave, Columbus, GA 31901
Gertrude “Ma Rainey” Pridgett, was born in Columbus, GA in 1886 and grew up to become known as the Mother of the Blues. She toured the country, wore tiaras and gold dresses, and went on to record more than 100 records for Paramount. In 1935 she came home to Columbus to run several theatres and care for her foster children.
The house was left to decay by her family after her death and required an enormous amount of restoration when the city bought in in 1991 for less than $5000. It opened as a museum in late 2007 after lots of struggles to fund funding and restoration to the house and furniture, like the piano that was encased in thick layers of bright green paint over the custom carved tiger wood, which is on display.
My favorite part of the tour was her bed room with custom designed, hand-carved tiger wood bedroom set which was sold to a local antique shop for $200 and then held hostage for $15k when the city was restoring the house. Tour guide Deb was fun to geek out with about music history and we talked about my trips to Muscle Shoals and Mississippi. She was a little overwhelming at first because usually it’s more my style to hide in the tour group or to just wander around the museum on my home. It’s impossible to be anonymous when you’re the only person on the tour. I don’t know how much of this was because it was a holiday and the city was seemingly abandoned or if there really is that little interest in Ma Rainey.
We also talked about how so much of Georgia’s musical history is forgotten. I didn’t point out that the museum erases the fact that Ma Rainey was a prominent face in the legendary queer divas of the 20’s thanks in part to her celebratory lesbian anthem “Prove It On Me,” from 1928.They did mention her arrest, but not that it was for an orgy at her home with female members of her chorus.
The Liberty Theatre
813 8th Ave, Columbus, GA 31901
Just a couple blocks down the road from her house is the Liberty Theatre, one of the three that she ran after she gave up touring. The Columbus Walk of Fame is out front, and of course she’s included.
Columbus, GA 31901
She died of a heart attack in 1935 at the 53 and is buried about 5 minutes from her house. I had trouble finding any details on where she was in the cemetery, but I had a photo and it’s a small cemetery, so I was able to pin it down without too much effort. I did get a screen cap of my gps point on a map while I was there to hopefully help the next person to go in search of Ma Rainey.