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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 That's because Brown's poetry was dissed and ignored by critics until after his collected (and mostly unpublished) works came out in 1980 and everyone went nuts for the stuff.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.
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.
The Academy of American Poets strikes again. This page includes a short bio and a few popular poems.
Modern American Poetry
If you just can't get enough, here's a more thorough bio, more poems, and some commentary, too.
For a brief lowdown, biography.com usually has the goods.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame site gives you a timeline, plus a complete bio. Who could ask for more?
Check out this amateur bio with a slideshow of photos if you want to learn the Brown basics.
Women and the Blues
Check out this preview of a video on female Blues singers called Wild Women Don't Have the Blues. You can buy the whole documentary if the sneak peek floats your boat.
Reading of "Ma Rainey"
This guy reads it so dramatically, it almost sounds like a song, which is, we think, the way it should be.
Brown's greatest hits read by the man himself. You can hear samples of several of his works.
Obligatory Photo of the Poet Smoking a Pipe
This portrait shows Brown deep in thought.
Brown really filled the role of professor—even nailed the look too.
Doin' her stuff.
The Collected Poems
All the Brown poems fit for print (and then some).
A Son's Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A Brown
These essays were what Brown was best known for during his lifetime.