Study Guide

Ma Rainey Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    This probably goes without saying, but you would think that a poem titled "Ma Rainey" would talk a lot about Ma Rainey. But here's the weird part: she's hardly even in the poem. We know she sings, and that's about it.

    What we get of Ma is a good picture of who her fans are and how she inspires them. We share the experience of a Ma Rainey concert. When we go to a concert, the band's name is on the ticket, but sometimes we connect more with the other fans than with the actual band. Sometimes the band is even on a stage behind big, scary dudes and fences.

    But in Ma Rainey's case, it's clear that these concert-goers feel a deep connection to the lady on stage (she's not stuck behind police barricades). Whether or not she reciprocates the connection is kind of beside the point. We're not talking about the real Ma Rainey here; we're talking about the a Rainey of imagination. What these fans see in her far more important than the woman herself.

  • Setting

    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.

  • Speaker

    Our speaker comes from the very world he's talking about. He knows Ma Rainey, he knows the blues, and most importantly, he speaks the language of black southerners. But if that's all he was, he'd be just another face in the crowd, like the guy who speaks to him in section 4.

    The speaker's got an agenda. He wants to tell us, his readers, about all these people, like the man in section 4, because he believes that they, and their love for Ma Rainey, are important. Why else would he spend 52 lines talking about them?

    In other words, he's a bit of a folklorist—much like Sterling Brown himself. He finds value in examining the lives of these often-overlooked people, and he wants his readers to understand them the way he does—hence the whole dialect thing.

    If he were the fancy, elbow-patch-sporting folklorist of the university set, we might get a poem in perfect meter or, heck, even an academic dissertation. But this guy's much more of the people than about them. He's all about authenticity.

    How can we tell? Well, just look at the choices Brown has made in the poem:

    • It's written in dialect, rather than fancypants English, which Brown, being an academic, would have been all too familiar with.
    • It's got bluesy rhymes and rhythms, rather than, say, iambic pentameter
    • A big chunk of the poem is written in the voice of someone the speaker talks to, rather than the speaker himself. At once point, he even seems to merge with the audience (section 3).
    • The speaker wants to know why these people love Ma Rainey so much, but he doesn't bother with some complicated analytical explanation. It's enough to hear it from the horses' mouths.
  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    The only hurdles here are the dialect of the poem (a few words might trip you up here and there), and the geographical references. As for the dialect, we recommend you read it aloud; you'll be surprised at how clear it all becomes. And as for those geographical references, check out our "Summary," or head on over to Google for the goods.

  • Calling Card

    The Southern Road

    There's a reason that Brown's only major book of poetry was titled The Southern Road: because many of his poems are about the African-American experience in the rural American south. "Ma Rainey" is no exception, as it describes the connection that rural southerners feel to Ma and her songs—and that connection comes from a distinctly African-American experience.

  • Form and Meter

    The Blues

    "Ma Rainey" has form, that's for sure. But we're not dealing with any traditional meters or feet here. We're singing the blues.

    The poem mimics the loose rhythm of blues music. All the even-numbered lines rhyme in sections 1, 2, and 3: line 2 rhymes with line 4, line 6 rhymes with line 8, and so on. And if you were listening to a poem being read aloud, you would hear that the rhymes occur at the big pauses; so you can read right through the lines until you hit a rhyme. The poet even drops the G's and D's at the ends of words just to bring out the rhyming sounds all the more.

    Section 4 shakes things up, for sure, but the same repetitive rhymes are in play. The end of the lines in the first and fifth stanzas of the section all rhyme, giving the lines the bluesy punch they need. And of course the final couplet rhymes as well.

    Once you pay attention to all these patterns, it's hard to ignore the fact that this poem sounds an awful lot like a song. And that's fitting, no? After all, the poem itself is about the power of song—it only makes sense that the poem would go for the same patterns that make blues songs so very relatable.

  • The Blues

    The lucky listeners of the audience get a taste of the blues when Ma starts signing somewhere around the end of section 2. But the blues are more than just music here: they're solace, connection, and empathy. How so? Allow Shmoop:

    • Line 24: Welp, isn't everyone just plain miserable in this poem? Yep, these folks have the blues. Bad.
    • Line 25: Ma sings blues music, but her smiles tell us that she has the cure for the blues. Or that at least something good can come of them.
    • Lines 35-38: The blues are all about turning your personal pain into music, but in this case, those personal pains are never specified. The ellipses at the end of the line leave this unresolved, but they also remind us that, though their pains may be different, these people all do share in the blues. They've all got pain, which means they've all got songs to sing.
    • Line 41: Brown is using the lyrics of a real blues song here. In this case, we get an idea of some of the specific hardships these audience members endure: a flood. Singing this song provided a moment of connection for the guy in the audience who's repeating the lyrics here. The blues touched him, they just got a hold of him somehow.
    • Lines 42-47: Usually a blues song repeats the first line twice then delivers a new line, but the fan has reduced the lyrics to the essentials, foregoing the repetitions to tell the story at the heart of the song. It's the hardship he's interested, and how the music has helped him rise above his own hardships.
  • Ma Rainey

    Okay, okay. We know she's a person. And how can a person be a symbol? Well it's pretty clear here that the speaker and the people in Ma Rainey's audience aren't all that interested in who this woman is as a person. They're much more interested in what she means to them, which can only mean one thing: she's a symbol.

    • Line 1: There she is, right there in the first line. Here the speaker tells us that she's such a popular singer that people will come from far and wide to hear her in person. Now that's fame.
    • Line 8: If there's one thing we do know about Ma the person, it's that she's crazy talented. She does her stuff. 
    • Line 25: When Ma comes on stage, she's got a big old grin on her face. That tells us that the blues are about more than just being down in the dumps. But still, we don't really know why she's smiling (maybe it's all those adoring fans?). That remains a Ma Rainey mystery that we'll never solve. 
    • Section 3: Section 3 reads like an extended request from these audience members. They want Ma to sing songs that will ease their troubles. That tells us that to these people, Ma and her music are solace. They heal. It's not that they like Ma, per se, but they love what she means to them, and how she makes them feel.
    • Line 52: Well, this line pretty much speaks for itself, don't you think? The idea here is that these people can't always put into words what Ma means to them, but whatever the case, she touches them with her music—on a deep level.
  • The Fans

    Sure, they're average Joes. But no less symbolic for it. From the details we get from the speaker, we can see that these Ma Rainey fans are symbolic of the black southern community as a whole.

    • Section 1: Ma Rainey's fans come from everywhere. They're like a cross-section of the southern black community. 
    • Lines 19-20: At the beginning of section 2, the speaker gives us some more specific details about where Ma Rainey's fans hail from. River settlements, farms, lumber camps. These are working class folks—no one fancy here. And each of these details gives us an idea of the typical black southerner's lifestyle and background.
    • Lines 21-24: No matter what their specific reaction, these fans are all pumped to see Ma Rainey sing. Blues music was a huge part of southern black communities, and here they're all taking part as audience members.
    • Section 3: Here we get to learn more about the inner world of these fans, and Brown gives us an idea of what their lives were like on an emotional level. They've got hardships up the wazoo, and are looking for solace, strength, and comfort in Ma Rainey's songs. Perhaps that's something they don't get a lot of in other areas of their lives. 
    • Line 52: In the last line of the poem, Brown emphasizes just how important blues music was to black culture in the south. It was so essential, that there are barely even words to explain it.
    • Steaminess Rating


      No sex here, folks. Move right along.

    • Allusions

      Geographical References

      • Cape Girardeau, Missouri (5)
      • Poplar Bluff, Missouri (6)
      • Mississippi River delta (15)
      • New Orleans, Louisiana (15)
      • Mobile, Alabama (16)

      Pop Culture References

      • Ma Rainey (throughout)
      • "Ma's Black Bottom Blues" (19)
      • "Backwater Blues" (41)