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Ma Rainey, dubbed the “Mother of Blues,” performed at touring tent shows customizing vaudeville to Black folks throughout the South and Midwest in the early 1900s. Her talents extended far beyond the full-throated rhythms of an evolving genre, America’s first original art forms. Literary critic and poet Sterling Brown celebrated her in a poem simply titled Ma Rainey.

Openly bisexual, Ma Rainey created a style that few could emulate. But her Influence shaped the careers of Mamie Smith, the first woman blues recording artist and Bessie Smith (no relation), her protégé who musically soared to unimagined heights. Ma also held court for up-and-coming brothers like a young “horn man” named Louise Armstrong. In 1924, he joined Ma Rainey to perform one of her major recording hits See See Rider.

“She was a person of the folks,” said poet and literary critic Sterling Brown who sheds love and light in this poem simply titled Ma Rainey.