by Sterling Brown
Ma Rainey Introduction
In A Nutshell
Let's start at the very beginning shall we? Long, long ago (okay, only about a hundred years ago), Sterling Allen Brown was born on May 1, 1901 in Washington, D.C. He came from a middle-class, African-American family and earned degrees from Williams College and Harvard. Fancy right?
Well get this: after his studies, he went on to become one of the most influential scholars of African-American folklore and literature. Now that's fancy. But did you notice we didn't say most influential poet? Well, Sterling Brown is a bit of a diamond in the rough to the larger American literary audiences of his time and ours. That's because Brown's poetry was dissed and ignored by critics until after his collected (and mostly unpublished) works came out in 1980 and everyone went nuts for the stuff. He is appreciated today because his poetry represented southern, rural blacks rather than focusing on the urban black communities of the Harlem Renaissance. Brown was deep into the project of presenting African-American folklore, language, and culture to the world. But maybe more importantly, he spoke directly to black literary audiences about innovation, tradition, and tastes. In other words, he was kind of a Big Deal (though you may never have heard of him until now).
Sterling Brown wrote countless essays, but only one book of his poetry was published in his lifetime: Southern Road. Southern Road (1932) was a huge flop, and Brown didn't put a big effort into publishing anymore collections, though he continued to write poetry. Nowadays, we can see his stuff for what it really was: awesome and powerful, through and through. The Southern Road poems—including "Ma Rainey"—captured real language, everyday racial issues, and the struggles and strife of black communities in the South with humor and honesty. It doesn't get much better than that.
"Ma Rainey" describes a concert by blues singer Ma Rainey from the perspective of her fans and concert-goers. It's written in their language, from their perspective, and it attempts to show us just how much Ma Rainey and the blues meant to the southern black community of Brown's day. We think it accomplishes these goals and more, but don't take Shmoop's word for it. Dig in and discover it all on your own.
Why Should I Care?
We all know a little something about the power of song. Whether you're belting out the latest boy band ballad or grooving to some old-school jazz, chances are you've been moved by music a time or two in your life.
But what is it about particular songs or artists that really speaks to you? Is it that the lyrics remind you of something from your life? Is it that the singer has shared an experience with you? Is it the notes themselves? Well, in the case of Ma Rainey and her followers, Brown thinks it's that she sings about the tough stuff to her fans who are living it every day. She sings, in a word, the blues.
Which raises the question: why would anyone want to listen to another person sing about everything going wrong? We mean, who wants to pay a chunk of change to listen to someone whine and mope? That doesn't sound like a good time, right?
Well, to all those naysayers out there, Shmoop will say only this: catharsis. The blues aren't about feeling sorry for yourself. They also reject the notion that if you sing about happy stuff, you'll feel happy. That's beside the point. You've gotta face your problems, head on, and revel in the mess. Then you'll have a song to sing.