Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ma Rainey

  • Ma Rainey's Black Bottom [Yazoo, 1984] A
  • Ma Rainey's Black Bottom [Yazoo, 1991] B+
  • Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Ma Rainey [Shout! Factory, 2003] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom [Yazoo, 1984]
Like most records of the '20s this 14-cut disc isn't exactly a pleasure to hear. Yazoo's pressing adds detail, brightness, and what may be an even-up trade--surface noise--to Milestone's five-duplication twofer. Nor is the material all one could hope for--"Prove It On Me Blues" would have provided both a jug band and a lesbian credo. But this is one artist whose history is made to be served. Too country to be semirespectably "classic" even though Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, and Don Redman show up among her sidemen, she's not so somber as gruff on the down blues she's best known for, and she also kids around. In short, she's more rock and roll than Bessie Smith. A

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom [Yazoo, 1991]
Kills me to find among the nine songs unavailable on the Shout! Factory alternative neither the jug-band-with-piano "Hustlin' Blues," where she turns her pimp over to the law, nor the loose-limbed New Orleans "Sissy Blues," where her man samples transvestite jellyroll. But they do include the title song, a historically accurate alternative to the identically named August Wilson play without which the album would not exist, "Sleep Talking Blues," in which revenge doesn't cheer her up much, and "Shave 'Em Dry Blues," in which adultery is quick, hard, and good for what ails her. B+

Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Ma Rainey [Shout! Factory, 2003]
Because she recorded for the famously cheapjack Paramount label, connecting with the woman that label dubbed "The Mother of the Blues" can be tough--cleaned up though they were, many vinyl-era reissues sound like she's singing behind a closed door. But specialists generally single out Yazoo's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom vinyl as a significant improvement, the CD version improves on that, and this much later collection improves on the Yazoo. This is easy to tell because five of Yazoo's 14 selections are also among Shout! Factory's 16, including the actively catchy warhorse "Oh Papa Blues." Just one example of Rainey's commitment to the Southern tent-show circuit, where she thrived for two decades before she began recording at 37, is her transformation of the lines Bessie Smith rendered as the copyrighted but unidiomatic "And if you care for me/You will listen to my plea" into the wilder "I'm almost goin' insane/I'm forever tryin' to call his name." But her peak was the braggadocious "Prove It on Me Blues," where the third verse catches me up every time: "Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must have been women 'cause I don't like no men." Because Rainey was muffled in the studio and assigned second-rate songs, she signifies most readily as history--black history, women's history, musical history. But because she reveled in a roughness avoided by the showgirls who put their names on so much classic blues, and because she felt natural fronting jug bands and ad hoc New Orleans ensembles, the soul, grit, and fun she was full of get closer to the surface with every advance in mastering technology. A-