by Sterling Brown
Where It All Goes Down
Allow Shmoop a brief daydream:
Sprawling across the benches of a crowded concert hall, Ma Rainey's fans are filled with excitement to see the show. You'd think they would be worn-out from traveling all day through heat of the summer or from the overall pain and losses life has thrown their way. The fans shout from one side of the hall to the other, telling stories.
The benches, the floors, the stage, and walls are warm and worn wood. A red curtain hangs in front. It's fringed with unwinding gold tassels. The concert hall has almost no lighting except for the light bulbs that line the edge of the stage and the gas lamps that hang low from the ceiling.
A stiff-looking and bookish type stands at the bar with another man. That man makes big hand gestures and sings just loud enough to be heard over the rumble and squawks of the crowd. The man stops and shrugs; the bookish type gives a sober nod as the curtain pulls away.
And now back to your regularly scheduled programming.
In "Ma Rainey," moreso than in most, the setting is clear as a bell. We're quite obviously in a concert hall, listening to blues tunes burst from Ma's tried-and-true pipes. Still, there's a larger setting to consider: that of the south, in the early 20th century.
Why's that important? Because it explains why these folks have the blues in the first place, and why blues music is so important to them. Life for a black person in the south back then wasn't easy. Segregation, lynchings, poverty, and ubiquitous racism were facts of everyday life. That's important to remember when reading this poem. The hardships African Americans endured in the south both inspired and were alleviated by the blues music that came out of the region. So while we might feel like we're at a specific concert here, we're really being told about the culture of an entire region and era.