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Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey

by Sterling Brown

Section 2 Summary

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

Lines 19-22

Dey comes to hear Ma Rainey from de little river settlements,
From blackbottom cornrows and from lumber camps;
Dey stumble in de hall, jes a-laughin' an' a-cacklin',
Cheerin' lak roarin' water, lak wind in river swamps.

  • Well now here's something different. The lines are getting longer, and we're getting some more details about Ma Rainey's audience.
  • They come from river settlements (towns along the river), blackbottom cornrows (farms), and lumber camps. (Blackbottom, by the way, is also likely a shout out to Ma Rainey's song, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which is about a dance called the black bottom that was popular in the 1920s.)
  • These people all seem pretty pumped to see Ma Rainey sing. They're in ridiculously good moods, laughing, cackling, and cheering. 
  • And their laughter and noise is compared to roaring water and wind (natural imagery alert), with some handy similes. Looks like things have taken a turn for the poetic. 
  • But notice, still, that these lines have a bluesy feel. Again, they're in dialect, again they follow an ABCB rhyme scheme, and again, they've got a jaunty rhythm going.

Lines 23-26

An' some jokers keeps deir laughs a-goin' in de crowded aisles,
An' some folks sits dere waitin' wid der aches an' miseries,
Till Ma comes out before dem, a-smilin' gold-toofed smiles
An' Long Boy ripples minors on de black an' yellow keys.

  • The crowd of fans is waiting for Ma Rainey to come out and perform, and they're pretty stinkin' excited.
  • Some are yukkin' it up in the aisles, and some are sitting patiently, "waitin' wid der aches an' miseries." Here's yet another hint that the audience members' lives aren't all fun concerts in town. When they do go to a concert, they bring with them all the hardships and difficulties in their lives. 
  • So people come from far and wide and wait patiently to hear Ma Rainey, even though their journeys probably weren't easy (have you ever been on a day-long mule ride?), and they've probably got lots on their plates back home. That's how much Ma Rainey means to these people.
  • Then she comes out smiling, gold tooth and all, to sing for them. Her accompaniment is a man named Long Boy, who plays minor chords on the piano. Minor chords are a classic blues choice, given that they sound downright melancholy when they're played, especially on an old piano with "yellow keys."
  • We're betting that smile and her songs made some of those "aches an' miseries" of the audience members fade away, at least for a little while. Music has a way of doing that, after all.

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