Ma Rainey's Lesbian Lyrics: 5 Times She Expressed Her Queerness in Song

Ma Rainey Georgia Jazz Band pose for a studio group shot c 1924 with 'Gabriel', Albert Wynn, Dave Nelson, Ma Rainey, Ed Pollack and Thomas A Dorsey.
JP Jazz Archive/Redferns

Ma Rainey Georgia Jazz Band pose for a studio group shot c 1924 with 'Gabriel', Albert Wynn, Dave Nelson, Ma Rainey, Ed Pollack and Thomas A Dorsey. 

As an African-American woman born to an impoverished family in the deep South just two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, Gertrude “Ma Rainey” Pridgett couldn’t have begun life in a more onerous situation.   

The notion that she’d become the Mother of the Blues, thereby spearheading a genre of that would give rise to American jazz -- and, ultimately, rock 'n' roll -- seems truly incredible given the historical context. But what’s truly amazing is that her lyrical content directly referenced her own lesbian and bisexual tendencies.

Keep in mind that as recently as the '80s, gay, white artists such as George Michael and Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford worried that the pitfalls of coming out publicly would be too great for their respective careers to survive. So imagine the moxie it took for a black woman from Georgia to get up and sing, “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends… They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men,” to a live crowd in pre-Stonewall America.

Needless to say, she was way ahead of her time.

Ma sang it when civil rights only belonged to the rich and the white, long before the idea of “social equality” was ever conceptualized, much less widely understood.

Her impact on the absorption of the traditional blues harmony into the day’s popular music has been regarded by historians as paramount, with many crediting Ma as a major early mentor (and perhaps a sexual partner) of Bessie Smith, aka the “Empress of the Blues.” This coupled with the fact that she sang unapologetically about taboo topics of the time, such as lesbian relationships and cross-dressing, is totally astounding.

We pored through the lyrics of Ma’s numerous recordings in search of most ground-breaking gay lyrics. Although direct references to homosexuality can be counted on one hand, more obscure nods can be found as she sings lines that indicate her disdain for the abusive men in her life.

Check out these awesome expressions from one of America’s earliest pro-gay voices in music below:

“Prove It on Me Blues” (1928)
Recorded during the final months of her 5-year contract with Paramount Records, “Prove It on Me Blues” is perhaps the best example a lesbian lyric from Ma’s repertoire. There’s no speculating what she’s talking about when she croons, “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men.”

As opposed to her other nods to homosexuality, which were often sprinkled sparingly within a line or two of a stanza, it seems Ma wrote this particular tune explicitly from the viewpoint of a lesbian woman.

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.

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.

“Shave ‘Em Dry Blues” (1924)  

Three subtle references to lesbianism are present in the positively promiscuous lyrics to “Shave ‘Em Dry” the title itself being a reference to foreplay-less, aggressive sex.

Here's one thing I don't understand,
Why a good-looking woman likes a workin' man,
Hey, hey, hey, daddy, let me shave 'em dry.

On its own, Ma’s inquiry doesn’t necessarily connote a sexual preference. But further along, she seems to be describing woman dressed in men’s “brogan shoes,” footwear that wouldn’t be worn by any woman unless she was cross-dressing or gay in 1920s America.

Goin' downtown to spread the news,
State Street women wearin' brogan shoes

In a variation on that same line, Ma makes the most obvious lesbian lyrical reference of the tune.

There's one thing I don't understand,
Some women walkin' State Street like a man.

“Bo-Weevil Blues” (1923)

The reference here is implicit. She doesn’t describe anything that could really be construed unequivocally as a gay lyric, but she sings, “I don’t want no man to put sugar in my tea,” which is perhaps to say she’d prefer a woman did instead. “Sugar in tea” could also be taken as a euphemism, though that notion is speculative at best.

I don't want no man To put no sugar in my tea, I don't want no man, To put no sugar in my tea, Some of them are so evil, I'm 'fraid they might poison me.

Black Eye Blues (1928)
What’s incredible about the simple I-IV-V chord progression that serves as the basis for all blues harmony is its versatility, which Ma exemplifies brilliantly as she sets truly harrowing lyrics to a four-chord variation.

Nancy and her man just had a fight.
He hit miss Nancy 'cross her head
Then she rose to her feet and she said,

You low-down alligator,
Just watch me soon or later,
Gonna catch you with your britches down.

The abusive story told is a somber departure from the playful promiscuity featured in the lyrics of other harmonically-similar numbers like “Shave “Em Dry Blues.”

You abuse me and you mistreat me,
You dog around and beat me
'til I'm gonna hang around.

“Don’t Fish in My Sea” (1926)
Whether she’s reflecting on a strained childhood relationship with her father or describing an adulterous lover, Ma uses frank language to paint a pretty unsavory picture of an unnamed man in this laid-back bluesy ballad.  

My daddy come home this mornin', drunk as he could be
My daddy come home this mornin', drunk as he could be
I know that he's done got bad on me
He used to stay out late, now he don't come home at all
He used to stay out late, now he don't come home at all
I know there's another mule
Been kicking in my stable.