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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
No sex here, folks. Move right along.