Study Guide

Ma Rainey Quotes

  • Race

    When Ma Rainey (1)

    The speaker assumes that we know who Ma Rainey is, just as you would assume someone knows The Beatles or Beyonce. He may also assume that you know she is an African-American performer in the Jim Crow South and most of her fans are going to be black, too.

    Folks from anyplace (3)

    The word folk has some very specific connotations. Usually, it gives the reader a sense of down-homeness, of simple dignity, and that's definitely how it's being used here. Brown might be doing that on purpose, because the word was often used in this sense, back in the early 20th century. For example, W.E.B. Dubois wrote a very important book called The Souls of Black Folk that championed Black culture as valuable to the culture at large.

    Dey comes to hear Ma Rainey from de little river settlements,
    From blackbottom cornrows and from lumber camps; (19-20)

    Here the speaker mentions a few traditionally black communities in the south. River settlements, lumber camps—they're all places where working-class African Americans could make a living and share a space.

    O Ma Rainey,
    Sing yo' song;
    Now you's back
    Whah you belong, (27-30)

    By saying that she's back where she belongs, our speaker let's us know that Ma Rainey is very much a part of the black community. In fact, she seems pretty pivotal in shaping the identity of that black community through music.

    O Ma Rainey,
    Li'l an' low;
    Sing us 'bout de hard luck
    Roun' our do' (33-36)

    It's request time at the concert. And the audience requests songs about the hardships they experience as black people in the South. By asking Ma Rainey to sing about this, the audience illustrates the deep connection between blues music, their racial identity, and the suffering they've endured as a result of it.

  • Poverty

    From Cape Girardeau,
    Poplar Bluff, (5-6)

    These two well-known towns in the Mississippi river valley were characterized by widespread poverty back in the day, especially when it came to their black citizens.

    Comes flivverin' in, (9)

    Flivverin's not just a cool word. It also tells us that these people aren't cruising in in fancy Cadillacs. They drive jalopies.

    Or ridin' mules, (10)

    Back in the day, mules were owned by those who couldn't spring for a horse, so in a poem like this, it's a sure sign of a lack of cash.

    Picknickin' fools…. (12)

    Could it be that the fans pack their lunches in order to save money while traveling?

    Sing us 'bout de hard luck
    Roun' our do'; (36)

    While this line could be taken as a request for Ma to sing about the struggles that black people endure in a racist southern community, it's also likely about the poverty they must deal with, too. And poverty and racism were intertwined back then, as black people were given few opportunities to make their lives better. Hence, the blues.

  • Visions of the South

    From Cape Girardeau,
    Poplar Bluff
    […]
    Fo' miles on down,
    to New Orleans delta
    An' Mobile town, (5-6, 14-16)

    Well here's a nice cross section of the Mississippi River valley and the Deep South. But what about the rest of America? Would folks come to see her from Albuquerque to Annapolis?

    Dey comes to hear Ma Rainey from de little river settlements,
    From blackbottom cornrows and from lumber camps;
    Dey stumble in de hall, jes a'laughin' and' a-cacklin',
    Cheerin' lak roarin' water, lak wind in river swamps. (19-22)

    Here the speaker makes a poetic link (with some handy similes) between the behavior of these people and the land they come from. They cheer and laugh like water, and like the wind. But not just any wind—the "wind in river swamps," perhaps like those that line the Mississippi.

    '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.' (42-47)

    Floods are a common occurrence in the Mississippi River valley, and they're something black southerners would be all too familiar with. No wonder there are so many blues songs about it.