Ma Rainey

By Sterling A. Brown 1901–1989

When Ma Rainey
Comes to town,
Folks from anyplace
Miles aroun’,
From Cape Girardeau,
Poplar Bluff,
Flocks in to hear
Ma do her stuff;
Comes flivverin’ in,
Or ridin’ mules,
Or packed in trains,
Picknickin’ fools. . . .
That’s what it’s like,
Fo’ miles on down,
To New Orleans delta
An’ Mobile town,
When Ma hits
Anywheres aroun’.


Dey comes to hear Ma Rainey from de little river settlements,
From blackbottorn 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.

An’ some jokers keeps deir laughs a-goin’ in de crowded aisles,
An’ some folks sits dere waitin’ wid deir 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.


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


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

   ‘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.’

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.”

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

Sterling Brown, “Ma Rainey” The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, edited by Sterling A. Brown. Copyright 1932 by Sterling A. Brown. Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Source: The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1960)

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Poet Sterling A. Brown 1901–1989

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Music, Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza, Couplet, Mixed


Born in Washington, D.C. into the family of an eminent minister, Sterling A. Brown (1901—1989) was educated at Williams College and Harvard, where he gave early signs of his brilliance. Inspired by such American masters of the vernacular as Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg, Brown did extensive fieldwork in the folkways of rural African Americans, then drew a vibrant portrait of their life by filling traditional poetic forms . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Music, Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza, Couplet, Mixed

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