The Ma Rainey/Music Maker Connection

inArtist Storyon January 5, 2021

Since Netflix released its film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” with Viola Davis masterfully playing the Mother of the Blues, critics all over the world have raved about the film. Rainey was a true pioneer of American music — and she was only one degree removed from the Music Maker Relief Foundation.

One of our original partner artists, Willa Mae Buckner, modeled her life and career after that of Rainey and even danced with her as part of her stage show on one occasion, her life showing the universality of the film’s themes across a generation of pioneering blueswomen. The parallels between Rainey and Buckner are striking, not only in their performances but also in their origins. Both were musical children of Georgia. Rainey was born in Columbus, on the state’s Alabama line, and Buckner came from Augusta, on the state’s border with South Carolina.

A young Willa Mae Buckner

“Willa Mae was very cognizant of Ma Rainey” even though she was about 35 years younger, says Music Maker founder and head Timothy Duffy. Both women began performing in their early teens, Rainey with medicine shows and Buckner running away from home at 12 to join the Black Gilly shows, small traveling carnivals. They each adopted chosen families, both in their apprenticeships and later in mentoring others — in Ma’s case, famously, Bessie Smith. “She was definitely taken in like a family member,” Duffy says. “There was a husband and wife that treated her like a kid and took care of her.”

A Gun, a Knife, and Some Snakes

Rainey and Buckner were both intimidating characters who carried weapons. Buckner’s arsenal also included her trademark collection of snakes, which were part of her stage show and a potent deterrent to anyone who tried to rob her apartment. Violence was a presence in Buckner’s life, first via her abusive stepmother and later via her boyfriend, who shot her through the neck. As a result, she carried a Smith & Wesson gun and a knife, and she said she was always willing to cut or shoot anyone who threatened her, much like Rainey. In the film, we also see how racist violence suffered by the family of the character Levee leaves him with a hair-trigger temper. Duffy remembers, “The first time I went to a drink house in Winston, I saw a woman standing on the porch holding a razorblade and a man running across the lawn holding a deeply cut forehead.” 

Rainey married and split with her husbands young, while Buckner never married. Both women instead learned to rely on themselves, radically independent of men and living defiantly in pursuit of their own visions. 

“Their great-grandparents or grandparents were slaves,” Duffy says. “They didn’t want to be subservient to a man or woman or anybody. The traveling shows afforded different freedoms that the straight world didn’t have.” Angela Davis, in her landmark book “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism,” writes of Rainey’s and others’ ability to “explicitly celebrate their right to conduct themselves as expansively and even as undesirably as men.”

Buckner with one of her pythons

The performances themselves were also extravaganzas, going well beyond music. “Buckner learned to be a contortionist, painted her body gold, laid on a bed of nails, was a dancer, worked the side booth, did strip teases in these country fairs,” says Duffy, exuding sex appeal to her grave. In the snake shows she pioneered, she was accompanied in these performances by four- or five-piece bands.

In keeping with their wild performances, Rainey and Buckner were known for their flashy attire, a big deal in the culture. Attire was paramount in their world. The late playwright August Wilson created the character of Levee, played here by the late Chadwick Boseman, to represent the countless Black musicians who found their work exploited by the white men who ran the American music industry. In the film, we see Levee spend a substantial sum on new shoes — simply to show his worth to the world. 

“Appearance was everything,” Duffy says. “It was very important.”

Lives of Importance (and Workaday Jobs)

The exploitation suffered by artists like Ma Rainey and Willa Mae Buckner was sadly a staple of the recording industry through the 1960s. Studios paid musicians flat rates for their recording sessions, often accompanied by fraudulent promises of more money to come, but the contracts left the artists with no royalty payments from their recordings, leaving them entirely dependent on fickle concert performance income.

Willa Mae Buckner when she worked as a bus driver

It wasn’t until long after her death in 1939 that Rainey began to get the recognition she deserved. Music Maker advisory board member Bonnie Raitt inducted her into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and she entered the Blues Hall of Fame in 1999.

In their later years, both Rainey and Buckner ran music venues but were forced to work menial jobs. Rainey managed three theaters while Buckner hosted a drink house. But Rainey was listed on her death certificate as a housekeeper, Buckner was forced to take up driving a bus in Winston-Salem for a decade. 

Still, throughout her life, Buckner’s verve and showmanship never disappeared. 

Duffy recalls the first time he met Buckner at Ezell’s drink house in Winston-Salem, where he was hanging out with Music Maker’s very first partner artist, Guitar Gabriel.

“I had heard about the snake lady, but no one would take me to her house because she lived with these two big snakes and everyone was scared of it,” Duffy says. “No one would go there. Then, Willa Mae showed up at Ezell’s, where Gabe and I used to hang out. We started playing, and she started doing these risque songs. She cussed like a sailor. I became good friends with her. She invited me to her place. She had an old Epiphone Broadway [guitar] in pawn and I helped her get it out of pawn.” 

Music Maker later helped Buckner land a performance at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall. She broke her elbow before the Carnegie Hall performance but did not tell anyone because she did not want to miss the show. Music Maker made sure she had proper medical care, and later helped admit her into a nursing home.

“To have only one degree of separation between Music Maker and Ma Rainey, who was one of the greatest legends, who helped create the blues, that makes me feel really proud,” Duffy says. “So many of our partner artists over the years were friends with and played with some of blues music’s earliest pioneers. And I’m glad that we were able to help someone like Willa Mae Bucker. Ma Rainey saw how special she was and invited her onto her stage.”

For More on Gertrude “Ma” Rainey 

Listen to this podcast from the Blues Foundation.

Visit her home, which has been restored as a museum in Columbus, Georgia. 

Watch Netflix’s discussion among the cast of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” with producer Denzel Washington and director George C. Wolfe, about the importance of blues music and blues culture in African-American life and culture. 

— Nick Loss-Eaton


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