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Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey


by Sterling Brown

Section 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 1-8

When Ma Rainey
Comes to town,
Folks from anyplace
Miles aroun',
From Cape Girardeau,
Poplar Bluff,
Flocks in to hear
Ma do her stuff;

  • First thing's first: who's Ma Rainey? Ah, Shmoop's so glad you asked. She was a totally awesome blues singer—one of the earliest in fact. She was such a pioneer that folks called her The Mother of the Blues. 
  • Yep, she was kind of a big deal. Okay, she was a huge deal. And she's the subject of this poem, so we're betting our speaker's gonna be heaping on the praise. 
  • In these opening lines, the speaker tells us that when Ma Rainey comes to town to perform, a ton of people come from all over to hear her "do her stuff."
  • The lines are written in a kind of bluesy rhythm, probably much like the rhythms in which Ma Rainey sang, and they're written in the language of rural African Americans. 
  • To hammer that point home, the speaker mentions that the people come from Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff, both small towns in southeastern Missouri.

Lines 9-12

Comes flivverin' in,
Or ridin' mules,
Or packed in trains,
Picknickin' fools….

  • Everyone comes flivverin' in? Yep, that word was new to Shmoop, too. A flivver, it turns out, is a jalopy, or an old, run down, beat up, barely held together with duct tape and bungee cords, car. 
  • So when the speaker says the people came flivverin' in to see Ma Rainey, he means that they drove in from the countryside in their junkers. 
  • But they also came on mules. Why mules? Well, those are animals that a person who can't afford a horse would often buy to cart themselves around. So it's clear that the speaker is emphasizing the poverty of Ma Rainey's audience here. They're not showing up in Cadillacs or anything. They're arriving on mules and in jalopies. 
  • Those who can afford train tickets pack themselves into the cars. Back when this poem was penned, train cars were segregated, and no matter how packed the black peoples' car got, they weren't allowed to spread out into the white car. 
  • And just who are these people? They're "picknickin' fools," of course. Sounds like the audience members have brought their own food to the show. Which is a good call—have you seen the price of a stadium hot dog lately?
  • We'd be remiss though, if we didn't point out that that word "picknickin'" rings a rather unfortunate bell. It sounds a lot like "pickaninny," which is a derogatory term for black children. Given the affection that this speaker seems to have for both Ma Rainey and these black audience members, we're betting that he doesn't mean for us to assume he's calling them names. Rather, the word serves as a kind of subtle reminder that not all is well in the lives of these people; they likely deal with the cruelties of racism on a daily basis.

Lines 13-18

That's what it's like,
Fo' miles on down,
To New Orleans delta
An' Mobile town,
When Ma hits
Anywheres aroun'.

  • Ma Rainey's audience isn't just limited to Missouri. Here, it seems like she's got people following her all the way down the Mississippi, which flows out into the Gulf of Mexico in New Orleans. Mobile, a city in Southern Alabama, is on the Gulf Coast about 150 miles east. 
  • Basically, anytime Ma Rainey comes to this region, she's got it covered—folks will come to see her from just about anywhere. 
  • Sterling Brown just might be adding in a little shout-out to a famous form of blues music called the Delta blues. Ma Rainey didn't sing the Delta blues, but you can bet she was influenced by and influence them in turn. 
  • Now that we've got this first section under our belts, we can take stock of a few formal elements.
  • First, there's definitely a rhyme scheme in play: every other rhyme lines, giving us an ABCB sort of feel. 
  • And it's definitely got a rhythm going, too. In fact, this section of the poem sounds downright bluesy, and bears some similarities to the songs that Ma Rainey herself sung. Talk about form following content.

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