by Sterling Brown
Section 4 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
I talked to a fellow, an' the fellow say,
"She jes' catch hold of us, somekindaway.
She sang Backwater Blues one day:
- All of a sudden, the speaker turns from music fan to music journalist, and tells us a fellow concert-goer explained to him why the fan likes Ma Rainey so much.
- Only, it's kind of hard to say. This fan tells us that "She jes' catch hold of us, somekindaway." In other words, she moves them, or touches them somehow.
- Sure, there are probably a ton of different ways that Ma Rainey touches her fans, but for this guy, it's the song, "Backwater Blues." It's a song about a flood that leaves thousands of people homeless, and it's a song that Ma Rainey probably sung a fair few times.
- Let's listen in, shall we?
'It rained fo' days an' de skies was dark as night,
Trouble taken place in de lowlands at night.
'Thundered an' lightened an' the storm begin to roll
Thousan's of people ain't got no place to go.
'Den I went an' stood upon some high ol' lonesome hill,
An' looked down on the place where I used to live.'
- These are the song lyrics to "Backwater Blues" that the fan has memorized. Basically, the lines tell us that a big storm lasted for days and flooded the areas around a river, which left a bunch of folks homeless. After the storm, the singer goes to the top of a hill and looks down upon the destruction.
- Why does the speaker quote the fan quoting Ma Rainey here? Your guess is as good as ours, but we can't help but note that adding the blues lyrics into the poem here show us just how much this poem is already like a blues song itself.
- Plus, the themes of this song hearken back to "de hard luck / Roun' our do'" and all those woes these folks wanted Ma to sing about. Here, we have a specific example of a song they're hoping to hear—a song that will bring them solace.
An 'den de folks, dey natchally bowed dey heads an' cried,
Bowed dey heavy heads, shet dey moufs up tight an' cried,
An' Ma lef de stage, an' followed some de folks outside."
- We're still listening to this fellow concert-goer here. Now that he's done quoting "Backwater Blues," he tells the speaker what happened when Ma sang it: everyone grew quiet, bowed their heads, and wept.
- Well that's new. Before the speaker described the crowd as downright rowdy. But here, it's a much more solemn bunch.
- The fan says that the fans at this particular concert went outside the hall after the performance, and Ma followed them, too. Cool, right? Imagine if your favorite band followed you out into the parking lot after a show, just to hang out and shoot the breeze.
- The final quotation marks here indicate that the concert-goer's done telling his tale, so in the next lines, we'll be back to the speaker's perspective.
Dere wasn't much more de fellow say:
She jes' gits hold of us dataway.
- Welp, that's all there is to it folks. So long, and thanks for all the fish.
- Just kidding, sort of. The speaker tells us here that the fellow he talked to didn't have much more to say about Ma Rainey, other than what happened when she sang her song.
- He's either having trouble articulating just why she's so awesome, or he's articulated it perfectly, and is quite satisfied with his efforts, thankyouverymuch.
- So which is it? Well we think it's actually a sneaky third option: there simply are no words to perfectly explain how awesome Ma Rainey is—it goes beyond words.
- Really, it's quite simple: "she jes' gits hold of us." She just moves them, and that's all there is to it.
- We're thinking that has something to do with her relatable lyrics, through her emotional connection to the blues, which these folks live everyday.
- And now, even though Ma Rainey is long gone, we can get a taste of her powerful impact just by reading the poem. Sometimes things really are that simple.