Episode 1. Columbus, Georgia. The Gertrude «Ma» Rainey House & Blues Museum on Fifth Avenue

For us, lovers of the blues and all English-American music, the main place of interest of Columbus, GA certainly is the «Ma» Rainey Family House. It is her home, her Lares and Penates: her nearest and dearest lived there, and the great blues woman herself spent her last years in this house. The preservation of this house, its reconstruction and subsequently opening of the museum are a huge merit and achievement of the town.

Once a ramshackle wooden hut, just like thousands of other poor huts of the black section of Columbus, stood on this place. In 1923 Rainey bought this land with the hut on it and in 1929 she built a rather big two-storey house with a spacious porch and veranda above it. In order to avoid the fire, a kitchenette, for cooking the meal, was built ten footsteps away from the house. The elderly mother of Gertrude – Ella Allen-Pridgett and the younger brother of the blues woman – Thomas Pridgett Jr., who later served as a deacon in Friendship Baptist Church located on the neighboring Sixth Avenue, lived in the house.

The death of the younger sister Malissa Nix-Pridgett, which followed in 1935, made «Ma» Rainey finish her career as a blues singer and return to Columbus. Her mother died the same year. Perhaps, these circumstances contributed to Gertrude’s turning to the religion. Soon after her return to Columbus she joined the congregation (community) of the same old Friendship Baptist Church. She would sing in church choir, help the poor, actively volunteer for different community services and works. Not having own children, she adopted seven orphans. According to memories of the citizens, «Ma» Rainey was incredibly generous, kind and sympathetic. She made every effort to help those in need. She also would support many musicians, not only from Columbus. The singer, famous all over America, was widely respected in her native town and throughout the state of Georgia.

Moreover, Rainey turned out to be a successful businesswoman: she bought three theaters on her savings: one next to her house – «The Liberty Theatre» (see the previous photo-essay about it) – and two similar theaters in the city of Rome, GA, – «The Lyric» and «The Airdrome». According to sources, she ran them rather well.

In December 1939 «Ma» Rainey passed away; late on, her brother Thomas stayed in the house as evidenced by the old engraving on the sidewalk…

Over the years abandoned house was decaying: the fate of all other houses maintained by no one was waiting for it.

In 1996 some enthusiasts managed to convince the town authorities of the need to rebuild the house of the most famous resident of Columbus in order to open a museum there. The house was redeemed from private ownership and completely reconstructed according to its original plan. They started to look for and buy out the furniture which served the singer and some of her belongings all over the town… Funds were found to redeem and restore «Ma» Rainey’s piano, which had been in the private ownership too and for some reason was painted in bright green. As we were told in the museum, one such restoration cost 17 thousand dollars! The enthusiasts traced and acquired (not very cheap too) an oak bed, beautifully embellished with engraving, from an antique shop: the very bed which once stood in the singer’s bedroom! Madam Rainey’s jewelry remained intact too: several pearl necklaces and two or three pairs of earrings. Incredible! Well, they adorned one of the greatest blues singers of all time!.. But where is her famous necklace of dollar coins, which once excited her young admirers?! It has gone… It hasn’t been preserved!.. Rainey seemed to sell it in tough times… But one thing is curious: on the white napkin, near the necklaces and earrings, there is a small wrist watch. Is it possible that it once belonged to «Ma» Rainey?! This watch stopped at ten minutes to ten: how do you think – a.m. or p.m.?..

An old phonograph, which once delighted the ear of Gertrude and her guests, was discovered too… A documental exposition about «Ma» Rainey’s life and work was created, presenting copies of documents, old photographs, posters and records. Unfortunately, not a lot of furniture, household items and other suchlike exhibits had been preserved, so they could fill only the first floor. But in course of time the second floor is likely to be furnished, then the Gertrude «Ma» Rainey house will look the way it did the day she left forever…

I may say, of all museum exhibits the Rainey’s old piano and her wonderful phonograph impressed me most…

Look closely. Gertrude «Ma» Rainey herself touched these piano keys, accompanied herself, singing blues songs… Or maybe she played ragtime… Or gospels, which afterwards sounded in Friendship Baptist Church… Or she played the first, the second and the third…
And what about the old phonograph?!

Of course, it hasn’t been playing for anyone for long, and its spring last time was winded up by someone many years ago, the turn table hasn’t been spinning, and this phonograph is likely to be broken… But even in such a frozen form it is worth our attention. Perhaps, of all phonographs and gramophones of America this phonograph is the main and the most respectable. And if all such phonographs and gramophones, as the people themselves, had the status, ranks and titles, then this simplest and most inexpensive phonograph would be in the highest and the most honorable rank. Just imagine: Gertrude «Ma» Rainey herself having come back home after a busy day, would approach it slowly, wind up the spring with a special winding crank handle, then she would confidently take the sound box with a pre-inserted new needle (because she was well aware of the preciousness of a record!), put it on a rotating shellac disc and then sit down in the armchair standing by… The music would capture the room with its bright colored wallpapers, then flounce away, to all corners of the big and warm house and even could be heard in the street by the neighbors and other passersby living in the black section of Columbus: «It’s our Ma, she’s listening to music… So she is at home now!»

What kind of music did she listen to?

What do you mean what kind?

She listened to the music of her friends: Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Thomas Andrew «Tom» Dorsey, Papa Charlie Jackson; of course, she played the records of Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and many, many others, with whom she once sang onstage or was recorded in a studio… They all presented her their records because it was very important for them to know what the great blues singer thought of them… It’s possible that she listened to Blind Lemon Jefferson and the great Delta bluesmen too – Charley Patton, Willie Lee Brown, Eddie «Son» House, – they all were her colleagues and Paramount recording partners… Rainey also listened (and it’s absolutely true!) records of her white friends from the native Columbus: Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton. According to the sources the famous duo sometimes visited her, and I’m pretty sure they would bring their records as well, which they would play together on this very phonograph… And she certainly listened to her own records to displeasure of her brother-deacon. But he had to put up with it: had it not been for the Paramount sessions of his sister, he wouldn’t be living in such a bright and fine house… And all this immortal music would come from this old phonograph, which, among other things, was a silent witness to the most important events in the house…

 

«Well, my old friend, don’t you feel lonely? Your great mistress, whom you served obediently and faithfully, indulging her attentive ear, has left this world long time ago. Feeling sad? Of course, of course… But her songs are alive, memory of her is alive, and her glory doesn’t fade over the years and decades. And as long as this memory keeps alive, you will stay here, in your usual place, in this room, next to the luxurious bed of your mistress, rightfully, and a conscientious museum attendant sometimes will dust you off… And who knows, maybe one day a master will touch your frozen, but still strong iron body, and breathe life into you. A new life! And then you will come to life and recollect yourself… And, just like in old times, the steel string hiding in your womb, winded up by someone, will once again energize the heavy disc, on which someone’s kind hand (of course, a woman’s hand!) will put some old shellac record you know so well, – maybe it will be the old good Paramount 12098 with blues sung by your unforgettable Lady and her portrait on its label! – and then this warm room with a fireplace will come alive again, and the irrepressible blues will fly away, upstairs, to all other rooms, to all corners of this revived house, and even will be heard outside, in all neighboring avenues and streets, in all parts of Columbus, throughout the entire Georgia, in the whole South… And the people accidentally passing by – black and white, old and young, even kids, – happily surprised, will suddenly stop and turn their eyes to this beautiful house – which means they will turn to you, the old phonograph… And they all will immediately think of your great mistress, your and our Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and say with a smile: “Here she is! We can hear her voice, we can hear her song, her blues! So she’s still with us, in her house on Fifth Avenue… She is alive!!!”»

 

 

Had a dream last night

And the night before

Had a dream last night

And the night before

Gonna get drunk tonight

I won't dream no more

In my bed

Didn't treat me right

Lord, I dreamed my man

Didn't treat me right

Like my poor dead Father

And walked the streets all night

I saw my man

Fall on his knees and cry

Thought I saw my man

Fall on his knees and cry

Take me back, Mama

Or else I'll die

Lord, I wonder

What am I to do

Lord, Lord, I wonder

What am I to do

When everybody's

Gonna mistreat you

My heart is achin'

Mama feel like cryin'

Lord, my heart is achin'

Mama feels like cryin'

Yes, I had a bad dream last night

Mama don't mind dyin'