‘Ma Rainey’ was written and published in 1932 in Sterling A. Brown’s first collection, Southern Road. This four-part poem explores the power of art. Ma Rainey is symbolic of the medium that connects the art with the audience. This poem features common folks’ perspectives of appreciating art. They are never critical about the songs they listen to. They are more focused on the emotions that the songs ignite within their souls.
Explore Ma Rainey
‘Ma Rainey’ by Sterling A. Brown describes the charismatic effect Ma Rainey has on her fans and how everyone can relate to her songs.
The first part of the poem describes how folks from miles away come to town just to attend a Ma Rainey show. People from Cape Girardeau to Poplar Bluff travel for miles down to New Orleans in motorcars and mules to listen to her songs. The second part describes the scene before she comes on stage. Folks from all walks of life gather there and sit patiently for her to come before them. Her songs, perhaps her emotions, can travel directly to their hearts as she speaks in their language and sings their unlucky tales. In the final section, the narrator talks about one fellow, who once listened to Ma Rainey singing “Backwater Blues.” He could say nothing much except how she just gets hold of them in some kind of way.
You can read the full poem here or listen to Sterling A. Brown reading the poem.
When Ma Rainey
Comes to town,
When Ma hits
In the first part of ‘Ma Rainey,’ Sterling A. Brown describes how folks from all around the country flock to the town in order to attend a Ma Rainey show. When she comes to town, folks travel for miles from Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff to hear her songs. It is important to note the use of the colloquial term “stuff.” The usage of such terms and the verbs with the last consonant left off adds a local flavor to the song. Americans of the Deep South conversed in this language. Brown uses this colloquial diction to voice their emotions just like the blues did.
They come from all around in their old motorcars or packed in trains. The term “flivverin’” or “flivver” is slang for riding in poor-quality cars. According to the speaker, they are “Picnickin’ fools.” It means they gather to hear Ma Rainey sing as if they are attending a picnic. The scene of people riding from miles away to the New Orleans delta is common when Ma Rainey hits the town.
Dey comes to hear Ma Rainey from de little river settlements,
An’ Long Boy ripples minors on de black an’ yellow keys.
The second part also contains colloquial speech, such as in the very first line. Brown uses “Dey” instead of “They” and deviates from the subject-verb agreement by using “comes” after “They.” In this section, the speaker says that the folks come from the little river settlements, from blackbottorn cornrows and lumber camps. The less fortunate, working-class, and the well-off section of society, both attend Ma Rainey shows. They are all the same for the artist. In this way, the hall becomes a leveling place housing everyone.
In the congested hall, people keep laughing and cracking jokes. There are so many people that some of them even stumble. The hall gets filled with laughter that sounded like roaring water or the wind in the river swamp. Some folks keep laughing in the crowded aisles while others sit with their aches and miseries. They wait patiently for Ma Rainey who always comes with her “gold-toofed smiles” and for the long boy, who ripples minors on the black and yellow keys.
O Ma Rainey,
Sing yo’ song;
Sing us ’bout de lonesome road
We mus’ go. . . .
This section begins with a direct address to Ma Rainey. The speaker passionately requests her to sing her song as if he is present in the crowd. He says the hall is the place where she actually belongs. She gets within the listeners and keeps them strong. She is the hope for those who flock to her shows. Her songs can relieve them of their pain and aches.
In the next lines, the speaker describes her short and lowly stature. She sings about the hard luck of the common folks and the lonesome road that all must walk on. In this way, the speaker briefly comments on the content of her blues songs.
I talked to a fellow, an’ the fellow say,
“She jes’ catch hold of us, somekindaway.
Dere wasn’t much more de fellow say:
She jes’ gits hold of us dataway.
In the last part of the poem, the narrator talks about meeting a fellow in one Ma Rainey show. The person recounts how Ma’s songs get hold of the listener in a mysterious way. He cannot explain how she does so. Once, she sang the song “Backwater Blues.” This song is about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. In this piece, a narrator describes how it rained for days and the lowlands flooded. He then stood upon a hill to witness the flooded place where he used to live.
While listening to the song, everyone bowed their heads and cried. Ma also left the stage with tears and some of them walked her outside. The fellow has no words to describe how Ma gets hold of them in that way. Such is the power of songs (or art in general) that can reach human souls quietly and strike the soft chords.
Structure and Form
‘Ma Rainey’ is a tribute to the blues artist Gertrude Rainey. This poem consists of four parts. Each section does not follow a specific structure. The first and third sections contain short, dynamic lines; the second section has two quatrains; the last one comprises tercets and couplets. The overall poem is in free-verse, without a regular rhyme scheme or meter. In the first three sections, Brown uses the third-person point of view and colloquial diction. The last part is written from the first-person point of view in order to share one of the speaker’s personal experiences.
In ‘Ma Rainey,’ Brown uses the following literary devices:
- Allusion: In this poem, Brown alludes to the best-known blues artist, Gertrude Rainey, also known as the “Mother of the Blues.” There is an intertextual reference to another blues song written by Bessie Smith, “Backwater Blues.”
- Enjambment: This device is used in a number of instances, especially in the first and third parts of the poem. Brown uses short, run-on lines to keep the pace up and portray the speaker’s excitement, as in “When Ma Rainey/ Comes to town,/ Folks from anyplace/ Miles aroun’”.
- Simile: It occurs in “Cheerin’ lak roarin’ water, lak wind in river swamps.” In this line, the speaker compares the excitement of the audience to the roaring water and the sound of the wind in river swamps.
- Alliteration: The repetition of the same sounds in closely placed words can be found in “Folks from,” “packed… Picnickin’,” “some folks sits,” “waiting wid,” “Sing yo’ song,” etc.
In ‘Ma Rainey,’ American folklorist and poet Sterling Allen Brown describes how Ma Rainey’s songs could touch the souls of the listeners. She knew how to get hold of their hearts in a way that nobody could explain. Brown wrote this poem to depict the common folks’ respect and love for Ma that motivated them to travel for miles in order to attend her shows. He uses Black English to add authenticity and local flavor of the Deep South to this poem.
This poem is about the 20th-century blues artist Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. In this piece, Brown describes how people from all walks of life flocked to Ma Rainey’s shows. They waited with eager hearts to hear her voice that had the ability to touch their hearts. They could not explain how she did that.
Sterling A. Brown wrote the poem in 1932. It was published the same year in his first book of poetry, Southern Road. This collection contains rural themes and talks about the lives of poor country folk.
Sterling Allen Brown is an American poet and folklorist, who was born on May 1, 1901, in Washington D.C. He was appointed as the first Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia. He is famous for his works about African-American culture and literature.
Readers who liked Brown’s ‘Ma Rainey’ will also consider reading the following blues poems.
- ‘Blues for Almost Forgotten Music’ by Roxanne Beth Johnson: This poem is about nostalgia for past relationships and explores the themes of love and loss.
- ‘The Weary Blues’ by Langston Hughes: This piece describes the performance of a blues musician playing in a club on Lenox Avenue in Harlem.
- ‘Everywhere Is Out of Town’ by Kevin Young: This piece is written as a tribute to The James Brown band, also known as the J.B.’s.
- ‘Simple Song Blues Villanelle’ by Tim Seibles: This poem is about the inevitable passing of time and how the body stops working with age.
You can also explore these incredible Black History poems.