The Black and Blue: Music in Brown’s Ma Rainey

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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] lonesome road[s]” (34; 35, 37). The telltale signs that Brown is indeed describing African-American life that brims with prejudice include diction choices. “Picknickin’ fools” alludes to ‘pickaninny,’ a derogatory term for black children (12). Moreover, Brown illustrates the diverse groups of people (coming from all over to witness Ma Rainey perform) as those who ride mules instead of horses or are “packed in trains;” they are the minority juxtaposed against a white majority, subjected to poverty and segregation, or lower-class treatment (11). They can’t afford horses; moreover,

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