Firstly, Brown’s “Ma Rainey” uses the music of the blues to address hardship, a thematic centrality of the musical genre. The poem references “Backwater Blues,” beginning with the following line: “It rained fo’ days an’ de skies was dark as night” (42). This imagery of a tempest symbolizes a state of internal or external unrest. In the unabridged version of “Backwater Blues,” the preceding line is immediately repeated; repetition works to establish and reinforce a mood consisting of people quite literally experiencing the blues, or melancholy. Further, another line in the song explicitly refers to hardship: “Trouble taken place in the lowlands at night” (43).
The hardships Brown points to are those symptomatic of being conditioned black, as opposed to white, in a color-conscious (racist) society, wherein African Americans are oppressed, or kept “li’l an’ low,” and experience “hard luck… [and] ...view middle of the document...
They can’t afford horses; moreover, during the time Brown penned “Ma Rainey,” no matter how packed the black railroad cars got, they were kept segregated from the white railroad cars.
On top of poverty and segregation, “Backwater Blues” may also deal with issues of identity construction. In the song, floods have washed people out from their homes; this line, taken figuratively, and within the context of Brown’s poem, could allude to the transatlantic slave trade metaphorically washing Africans out of Africa into America. Then, the line – “look[ing]… on the place where I used to live” – takes the meaning of an individual standing in America but seeing Africa, as they construct what it means to be African-American. Within migration, there is the inherent hardship of conflicted or divided self; this is heightened by white racism putting double-consciousness into place (looking at one’s self through the eyes of society). Regardless the specific hardships Brown touches upon, it can be taken that his inclusion of the song “Backwater Blues” hints at the hardships themselves being “backwater.” “Backwater” is defined as a part of a river not reached by the main current; allegorically, these hardships are ignored by major parts of society ().
Secondly, “Ma Rainey” exemplifies blues music as a unifying force. The poem, at its most explicit level, is about a woman – actual blues singer Ma Rainey (1886-1939) – whose singing brings together “Folks from anyplace,/ Miles aroun’” (3-4). Not only does the songstress, with her songs like “Backwater Blues”, possess the ability to physically unite people from different states – “To New Orleans [Louisiana] delta/ An’ Mobile town [Alabama]” – but also, she is able to metaphorically morph the audience into a single, inseparable body; they become one while she sings (15-16). This is evidenced virtue of the fact that the speaker refers to himself as part of an “us” throughout the poem (first seen in line 31). Ma Rainey has bridged an emotional connection between everyone in the audience; even more, Ma Rainey bridges an emotional connection between the audience and herself, as she “git[s] way inside us” (31).