The Standard Journal
Remembering locals’ contributions
Editor’s note: The following article was contributed by Greg Gray from the Polk County Historical Society.
Ida was born Ida M. Prather, the daughter of Lamax and Susie (Knight) Prather, sharecroppers in Toccoa, Habersham County, Georgia, and grew up in Cedartown, Polk County, Georgia. Her family lived and worked in the shadow of the Riverside Plantation, the private residence of the wealthy Prather family, from which her namesake came. She faced a future of poverty and few educational and employment opportunities.
Ida joined the local African Methodist Choir here in Cedartown at an early age and developed an interest in gospel music and performance. At the age of 14, she left home to tour with White and Clark’s Black & Tan Minstrels. She began her career on stage by playing Topsy, a “pickaninny” role commonly performed in vaudeville shows of the time, often in blackface. Cox’s early experience with touring troupes included stints with other African- American travelling minstrel shows on the Theater Owners Booking Association vaudeville circuit: the Florida Orange Blossom Minstrels, the Silas Green Show, and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.
The Rabbit Foot Minstrels, organized by F. S. Wolcott and based after 1918 in Port Gibson, Mississippi, were important not only for the development of Cox’s performing career but also for launching the careers of her idols Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Known col- loquially as the Foots, the troupe provided a nurturing environment in which Cox developed her stage presence, but life on the vaudeville circuit was trying for performers and workers alike. The weaker voiced singers used a megaphone, but most of the featured women blues singers scorned such aids to volume. When she was not singing, Cox performed as a sharp-witted comedian in vaudeville variety shows, gaining valuable stage experience and cultivating her stage presence.
By 1915, Cox had advanced from the pickaninny roles of her early minstrel years to singing the blues almost exclusively. In 1920, she left the vaudeville circuit briefly to appear as a headline act at the 81 Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, with the great blues pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Her commanding stage presence and expressive delivery earned Cox star billing, and by the early 1920s she was regarded as one of the finest solo acts offered by the shows that travelled the Theater Owners Booking Association circuit. In March 1922 a performance by Cox at the Beale Street Palace, in Memphis, Tennessee, was aired on radio station WMC, with positive reviews, leading to exposure to a wider audience.
After the success of Mamie Smith’s 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues”, record companies became aware of a demand for recordings of race music. The classic female blues era had begun and would extend through the 1920s. With her popularity in the South rapidly increasing, Cox caught the attention of talent scouts and secured a contract with Paramount Records, the same company for which her idol Ma Rainey recorded. Paramount touted Cox as “The Uncrowned Queen of Blues,” a title that she proved was deserved though her prolific recording career. Between September 1923 and October 1929, she recorded 78 titles for Paramount.
In 1929, Cox and Crump formed their own tent show revue, aptly named Raisin’ Cain ( after the biblical story of Cain and Abel and the resulting colloquialism). Cox performed as the title act, and Crump served as both accompanist and manager. Through the end of the 1920s and into the early 1930s, Raisin’ Cain toured black theaters across the Southeast and westward through Texas, with shows in Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, and performed several times in Chicago.
The show had sixteen chorus girls, comics, and backup singers. The Raisin’ Cain tent show proved so popular that in 1929 it became the first show associated with the Theater Owners’ Booking Association circuit to open at the famed Apollo Theater, in Harlem, New York.
By the end of the decade, the economic hardships of the Great Depression and the waning popularity of female blues singers made it difficult to maintain performances of the show, with frequent layoffs and gaps in its touring schedule. Other blueswomen all but disappeared from public performance, but Cox continued her performing career through the 1930s. In 1935, she and Crump reorganized Raisin’ Cain, which by then had been renamed Darktown Scandals, and continued to tour the South and Midwest until 1939.
Cox effectively disappeared from the music world until 1959, when John Hammond placed an ad in Variety magazine in search of her. After locating her, Hammond and the record producer Chris Albertson urged her to make another recording, and in 1961, 15 years after her last sessions, she recorded t he al bum Blues f or Rampart Street for Riverside Records, backed by an all-star group composed of Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, the pianist Sammy Price, the bassist Milt Hinton, and the drummer Jo Jones.
The album contained songs from her old repertoire, including “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues”, which found a new audience, including the singers Nancy Harrow and Barbara Dane, who recorded their own versions of the song. A review in the New York Times said that Cox at the age of 65 had lost quality in range and intonation but retained her charismatic and expressive delivery of many of the classic tunes that had launched her into stardom.
Cox referred to the album as her “final statement.” After recording it, she returned to Knoxville to live with her daughter. She had another stroke in 1965.
In 1967, she entered East Tennessee Baptist Hospital, where she died of cancer on November 10, 1967, aged 71. She was buried in Longview Cemetery in Knoxville.