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Advertisement for Ma Rainey, “Prove It On Me Blues,”

This large-format print advertisement features an illustration of Ma Rainey, in a suit and men’s hat, flirting with two flapper-style African American women, while a white police officer watches in the background with suspicion. The copy alludes to the scandal of Rainey and the song. Other copy features various Paramount “race records,” including blues and spirituals.

Paramount
1928
Print
JD Doyle Archives

Ma Rainey, “Prove It On Me Blues,” Advertisement. 1928. , Queer Music Heritage, JD Doyle Archives https://queermusicheritage.com/nov2014s.html

This source is a 1928 advertisement for Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, a famous blues singer. In this poster Rainey is dressed in a skirt with otherwise typical men’s clothing. Two women wearing flapper-style clothing stand next to her. A white police officer stands in the background looking at this scene suspiciously, threateningly twirling a night stick. Rainey was famous for her powerful voice, her willingness to flaunt conventional norms for African American artists in the 1920s, her necklace made of gold coins, and her rebelliousness. Her recording studio produced her music on what was called “race records” — the name given to the segregated sector of the recording industry that catered to black audiences, which would become known as “rhythm and blues” by the 1940s. The black middle class and religious leaders generally looked down on the blues for putting forth negative stereotypes about black life, while others admired the genre for its realistic depiction of everyday life and its challenges for working-class African Americans. Based on this advertisement, who do you think the intended audience was for the poster? What kind of “extreme” in the 1920s do you think this poster represents? Why do you think it is important that the graphic artist represents Rainey in masculine attire next to feminine, modern flappers? Why is the policeman there? Listen to the song “Prove It On Me Blues,” which is easily accessible online. How does the song express different types of blackness, freedom, and modern life? What does this tell us about the existence of LGBT subculture in the 1920s and its visibility in popular culture?

This source is a 1928 advertisement for Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, a famous blues singer. In this poster Rainey is dressed in a skirt with otherwise typical masculine clothing. Two women wearing flapper-style clothing stand next to her. A white police officer stands in the background looking at this scene suspiciously. Rainey was famous for her powerful voice, her willingness to flaunt conventional norms, her unabashed sexuality, and her rebelliousness. She and other blues singers traveled at first throughout the South performing for primarily black audiences. As she became a recording artist and grew in popularity during the 1920s, she traveled extensively throughout the South, East Coast, and Midwest, gaining a reputation as the “Mother of the Blues” and becoming, along with Bessie Smith, one of the top-selling recording artists of the age. Rainey’s recording studio produced her music on what was called “race records” — the name given to the segregated sector of the recording industry that catered to black audiences, which would become known as “rhythm and blues” by the 1940s. The black middle class and religious leaders generally looked down on the blues for putting forth negative stereotypes about black life, while others admired the genre for its realistic depiction of everyday life and its challenges for working-class African Americans. Her songs often expressed a rebellion against respectability, gender norms, and sexual propriety. In singing them, she exemplified the “wild woman” of the era’s female blues music, who expressed freedom not through the cultural striving and uplift endorsed by the black middle class and educated elite of the Harlem Renaissance, but through movement — away from the sharecropping South, out of bad relationships, away from heterosexual marriage and monogamy, and across genders. Encourage students to explore this advertisement, and the song it advertises, to consider how Rainey articulates an independence from sexual and gender norms, even as she is aware of the dangers of policing. As Angela Davis notes in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, in the ad and song, Rainey moves between an open expression of lesbian desire and gender fluidity and a dare to actually catch her in the act.* Have students consider how blues music and the Harlem Renaissance played a role in both the blossoming of LGBT subcultures and a public awareness of sexual and gender diversity in the 1920s. How did these also express something about the policing of black sexuality and LGBT lives in the era?

* Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998).

Transcription
“Prove It On Me Blues” by “Ma” Rainey
What’s all this? Scandal? Maybe so, but you wouldn’t have thought it of “Ma” Rainey. But look at that cop watching her! What does it all mean? But “Ma” just sings “Prove It On Me” in this great new Paramount Blues No. 12668, with a bang-up accompaniment by the Tub Jug Washboard Band. Don’t fail to get this record from your dealer, or send us the coupon.
[Catalog listings of other blues and spiritual recordings]
Electrically Recorded!
Paramount Records are recorded by the latest new electric method. Greater volume, amazingly clear tone. Always the best music — first on Paramount!
Paramount
The Popular Race Record