Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Essays and Criticism
by August Wilson

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Blues as a Mode of Communication

(Drama for Students)

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Scene from 1989 theatrical production Published by Gale Cengage

In his preface to the play, Wilson writes this about the blues: ‘‘It is hard to define this music. Suffice it to say that it is music that breathes and touches. That connects. That is in itself a way of being separate and distinct from any other.’’ By positioning the blues as a form of communication, Wilson underscores his desire that the audience watch the play as they would listen to the blues, for its emotional impact, rather than its plot. Although Wilson tells us how the blues work, he doesn’t tell us what they are.

Historically, the word blues emerged from black American folk music. It denotes both a form of music and a melancholic state of mind as, for example, when someone feels depressed and says, ‘‘I’ve got the blues.’’ Formally, the blues are comprised of eight-, twelve-, and thirty-two-bar harmonic progressions that form the foundation for improvisation. The vocal style of the blues derives from the southern work songs of blacks, and by the turn of the twentieth century it was typically comprised of three-line stanzas. When blacks began migrating north in the 1920s, singers such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Sara Martin brought the blues with them. These singers cultivated their fan base through live performances in traveling vaudeville shows. By the 1940s—and with significant urban influences—the blues developed into rhythm-and-blues, which singers such as Muddy Waters helped to popularize. The rhythm-and-blues, in turn, had and continues to have, their own influence on rock-and-roll, as seen in the music of bands such as the Rolling Stones.

Wilson’s play, however, is more closely related to the state of mind the blues embodies and the way in which it acts as a kind of glue, bonding the characters to one another. The stories of the band members themselves can be considered blues, for they encapsulate the hopes, dreams, and disappointments of their tellers, as well as of black people as a whole. Critic Mary Bogumil writes this about the blues: ‘‘If a struggle can be inherited, the blues is inherited, for the blues functions as the documentation of those who experience that struggle. It is an inherent tradition in the African American culture.’’ Those struggles are documented in the characters’ stories, which are themselves reflected in the songs. Here, for example, are the first two stanzas from ‘‘Hear Me Talking to You,’’ which Slow Drag sings during the band’s rehearsal in act 1:

Rambling man makes no change in me
I’m gonna ramble back to my used-to-be
Ah, you hear me talking to you
I don’t bite my tongue
You wants to be my man
You got to fetch it with you when you come.
Eve and Adam in the garden taking a chance
Adam didn’t take time to get his pants
Ah, you hear me talking to you
I don’t bite my tongue
You wants to be my man
You got to fetch it with you when you come.

This song, about a woman’s love for her man in spite of his wandering ways, speaks to the values of endurance and forgiveness, values cultivated by blacks who have survived and flourished in a society that has exploited and then scorned them. Wilson’s Ma Rainey speaks to the inability of whites to understand the blues and, hence, the black experience:

White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing cause there’s a way of understanding life.… The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world. Something’s been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and try to fill it up with something.

Ma’s pointing to white ignorance of the origin and cause of the blues underscores white people’s essential indifference to the black struggle. This stance is illustrated by Sturdyvant and Irvin’s behavior. The...

(The entire section is 14,165 words.)