Study Guide

Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey Summary

The main speaker of the poem starts off describing people traveling from the countryside to see blues singer Ma Rainey perform in the voice of those very folks. In his bluesy language, the speaker then describes the rowdy audience as the show starts. After that, the speaker asks an audience member why he likes Ma Rainey and her music. The audience member quotes some lyrics and describes the affect it has on the crowd, which is pretty powerful, to say the least. In the end the speaker feels like he shares the experience with the other audience members and Ma Rainey, too.

  • Section 1

    Lines 1-8

    When Ma Rainey
    Comes to town,
    Folks from anyplace
    Miles aroun',
    From Cape Girardeau,
    Poplar Bluff,
    Flocks in to hear
    Ma do her stuff;

    • First thing's first: who's Ma Rainey? Ah, Shmoop's so glad you asked. She was a totally awesome blues singer—one of the earliest in fact. She was such a pioneer that folks called her The Mother of the Blues. 
    • Yep, she was kind of a big deal. Okay, she was a huge deal. And she's the subject of this poem, so we're betting our speaker's gonna be heaping on the praise. 
    • In these opening lines, the speaker tells us that when Ma Rainey comes to town to perform, a ton of people come from all over to hear her "do her stuff."
    • The lines are written in a kind of bluesy rhythm, probably much like the rhythms in which Ma Rainey sang, and they're written in the language of rural African Americans. 
    • To hammer that point home, the speaker mentions that the people come from Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff, both small towns in southeastern Missouri.

    Lines 9-12

    Comes flivverin' in,
    Or ridin' mules,
    Or packed in trains,
    Picknickin' fools….

    • Everyone comes flivverin' in? Yep, that word was new to Shmoop, too. A flivver, it turns out, is a jalopy, or an old, run down, beat up, barely held together with duct tape and bungee cords, car. 
    • So when the speaker says the people came flivverin' in to see Ma Rainey, he means that they drove in from the countryside in their junkers. 
    • But they also came on mules. Why mules? Well, those are animals that a person who can't afford a horse would often buy to cart themselves around. So it's clear that the speaker is emphasizing the poverty of Ma Rainey's audience here. They're not showing up in Cadillacs or anything. They're arriving on mules and in jalopies. 
    • Those who can afford train tickets pack themselves into the cars. Back when this poem was penned, train cars were segregated, and no matter how packed the black peoples' car got, they weren't allowed to spread out into the white car. 
    • And just who are these people? They're "picknickin' fools," of course. Sounds like the audience members have brought their own food to the show. Which is a good call—have you seen the price of a stadium hot dog lately?
    • We'd be remiss though, if we didn't point out that that word "picknickin'" rings a rather unfortunate bell. It sounds a lot like "pickaninny," which is a derogatory term for black children. Given the affection that this speaker seems to have for both Ma Rainey and these black audience members, we're betting that he doesn't mean for us to assume he's calling them names. Rather, the word serves as a kind of subtle reminder that not all is well in the lives of these people; they likely deal with the cruelties of racism on a daily basis.

    Lines 13-18

    That's what it's like,
    Fo' miles on down,
    To New Orleans delta
    An' Mobile town,
    When Ma hits
    Anywheres aroun'.

    • Ma Rainey's audience isn't just limited to Missouri. Here, it seems like she's got people following her all the way down the Mississippi, which flows out into the Gulf of Mexico in New Orleans. Mobile, a city in Southern Alabama, is on the Gulf Coast about 150 miles east. 
    • Basically, anytime Ma Rainey comes to this region, she's got it covered—folks will come to see her from just about anywhere. 
    • Sterling Brown just might be adding in a little shout-out to a famous form of blues music called the Delta blues. Ma Rainey didn't sing the Delta blues, but you can bet she was influenced by and influence them in turn. 
    • Now that we've got this first section under our belts, we can take stock of a few formal elements.
    • First, there's definitely a rhyme scheme in play: every other rhyme lines, giving us an ABCB sort of feel. 
    • And it's definitely got a rhythm going, too. In fact, this section of the poem sounds downright bluesy, and bears some similarities to the songs that Ma Rainey herself sung. Talk about form following content.
  • Section 2

    Lines 19-22

    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' an' a-cacklin',
    Cheerin' lak roarin' water, lak wind in river swamps.

    • Well now here's something different. The lines are getting longer, and we're getting some more details about Ma Rainey's audience.
    • They come from river settlements (towns along the river), blackbottom cornrows (farms), and lumber camps. (Blackbottom, by the way, is also likely a shout out to Ma Rainey's song, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which is about a dance called the black bottom that was popular in the 1920s.)
    • These people all seem pretty pumped to see Ma Rainey sing. They're in ridiculously good moods, laughing, cackling, and cheering. 
    • And their laughter and noise is compared to roaring water and wind (natural imagery alert), with some handy similes. Looks like things have taken a turn for the poetic. 
    • But notice, still, that these lines have a bluesy feel. Again, they're in dialect, again they follow an ABCB rhyme scheme, and again, they've got a jaunty rhythm going.

    Lines 23-26

    An' some jokers keeps deir laughs a-goin' in de crowded aisles,
    An' some folks sits dere waitin' wid der aches an' miseries,
    Till Ma comes out before dem, a-smilin' gold-toofed smiles
    An' Long Boy ripples minors on de black an' yellow keys.

    • The crowd of fans is waiting for Ma Rainey to come out and perform, and they're pretty stinkin' excited.
    • Some are yukkin' it up in the aisles, and some are sitting patiently, "waitin' wid der aches an' miseries." Here's yet another hint that the audience members' lives aren't all fun concerts in town. When they do go to a concert, they bring with them all the hardships and difficulties in their lives. 
    • So people come from far and wide and wait patiently to hear Ma Rainey, even though their journeys probably weren't easy (have you ever been on a day-long mule ride?), and they've probably got lots on their plates back home. That's how much Ma Rainey means to these people.
    • Then she comes out smiling, gold tooth and all, to sing for them. Her accompaniment is a man named Long Boy, who plays minor chords on the piano. Minor chords are a classic blues choice, given that they sound downright melancholy when they're played, especially on an old piano with "yellow keys."
    • We're betting that smile and her songs made some of those "aches an' miseries" of the audience members fade away, at least for a little while. Music has a way of doing that, after all.
  • Section 3

    Lines 27-32

    O Ma Rainey,
    Sing yo' song;
    Now you's back
    Whah you belong,
    Git way inside us,
    Keep us strong….

    • Back in those short lines, the speaker begins to address Ma Rainey herself. It sounds like our speaker's actually in the audience now.
    • In an echo of the way that ancient Greek poets used to ask the muses to inspire them (the Odyssey begins "Tell me, O Muse"), the speaker welcomes Ma by telling her that up on stage in a southern town is exactly where she belongs.
    • Then he asks her to "git way inside us, / Keep us strong." 
    • It is almost as if Ma Rainey has the power to become an inseparable, physical part of her fans' bodies, as if she can jump into their souls and make them feel things. Which would certainly explain why these folks love her so much—they're touched by her music, and it makes them feel better. 
    • Notice how the speaker is using the word "us" instead of me, because everyone is participating in the concert. He seems to feel connected both to Ma and to his fellow audience members.

    Lines 33-38

    O Ma Rainey,
    Li'l an' low;
    Sing us 'bout de hard luck
    Roun' our do';
    Sing us 'bout de lonesome road
    We mus' go….

    • The speaker keeps asking Ma to inspire him and the fans, repeating the refrain of "O Ma Rainey."
    • This time, he's making a request. He wants Ma to sing "'bout de hard luck / Roun' our do'." Once again, we're getting hints that these folks don't have awesome lives. 
    • And they turn to Ma Rainey to make it better. But what's interesting here is that they're not asking her to distract them from their troubles—they want her to sing about those troubles. Maybe she has shared them, and maybe that brings them solace. 
    • The speaker also wants Ma to sing about "de lonesome road / We mus' go." Sterling Brown was really into the metaphor of the road; he even called his first collection The Southern Road.
    • Sure, the literal road that the fans travel on to get to the show is anything but lonely; there are tons of people headed to the show, after all. But we're thinking the speaker here is talking about a more figurative road here, like the journey of life that everyone has to go through alone. 
    • Sterling Brown is weaving a sense of togetherness that comes with attending a concert with hundreds of similar fans, to listen to a singer sing about your lives with the isolation that comes with the hardship of plain old living. Nifty, right?
  • Section 4

    Lines 39-41

    I talked to a fellow, an' the fellow say,
    "She jes' catch hold of us, somekindaway.
    She sang Backwater Blues one day:

    • All of a sudden, the speaker turns from music fan to music journalist, and tells us a fellow concert-goer explained to him why the fan likes Ma Rainey so much.
    • Only, it's kind of hard to say. This fan tells us that "She jes' catch hold of us, somekindaway." In other words, she moves them, or touches them somehow. 
    • Sure, there are probably a ton of different ways that Ma Rainey touches her fans, but for this guy, it's the song, "Backwater Blues." It's a song about a flood that leaves thousands of people homeless, and it's a song that Ma Rainey probably sung a fair few times. 
    • Let's listen in, shall we?

    Lines 42-47

       '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.'

    • These are the song lyrics to "Backwater Blues" that the fan has memorized. Basically, the lines tell us that a big storm lasted for days and flooded the areas around a river, which left a bunch of folks homeless. After the storm, the singer goes to the top of a hill and looks down upon the destruction.
    • Why does the speaker quote the fan quoting Ma Rainey here? Your guess is as good as ours, but we can't help but note that adding the blues lyrics into the poem here show us just how much this poem is already like a blues song itself.
    • Plus, the themes of this song hearken back to "de hard luck / Roun' our do'" and all those woes these folks wanted Ma to sing about. Here, we have a specific example of a song they're hoping to hear—a song that will bring them solace.

    Lines 48-50

    An 'den de folks, dey natchally bowed dey heads an' cried,
    Bowed dey heavy heads, shet dey moufs up tight an' cried,
    An' Ma lef de stage, an' followed some de folks outside."

    • We're still listening to this fellow concert-goer here. Now that he's done quoting "Backwater Blues," he tells the speaker what happened when Ma sang it: everyone grew quiet, bowed their heads, and wept. 
    • Well that's new. Before the speaker described the crowd as downright rowdy. But here, it's a much more solemn bunch. 
    • The fan says that the fans at this particular concert went outside the hall after the performance, and Ma followed them, too. Cool, right? Imagine if your favorite band followed you out into the parking lot after a show, just to hang out and shoot the breeze. 
    • The final quotation marks here indicate that the concert-goer's done telling his tale, so in the next lines, we'll be back to the speaker's perspective.

    Lines 51-52

    Dere wasn't much more de fellow say:
    She jes' gits hold of us dataway.

    • Welp, that's all there is to it folks. So long, and thanks for all the fish.
    • Just kidding, sort of. The speaker tells us here that the fellow he talked to didn't have much more to say about Ma Rainey, other than what happened when she sang her song. 
    • He's either having trouble articulating just why she's so awesome, or he's articulated it perfectly, and is quite satisfied with his efforts, thankyouverymuch. 
    • So which is it? Well we think it's actually a sneaky third option: there simply are no words to perfectly explain how awesome Ma Rainey is—it goes beyond words. 
    • Really, it's quite simple: "she jes' gits hold of us." She just moves them, and that's all there is to it. 
    • We're thinking that has something to do with her relatable lyrics, through her emotional connection to the blues, which these folks live everyday. 
    • And now, even though Ma Rainey is long gone, we can get a taste of her powerful impact just by reading the poem. Sometimes things really are that simple.