Some takeaways and some links to background material for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Time flies and already I am half way through my first reading of Week 3’s Fences (I am finding I need to read through these plays at least two times to really “get” it). But before getting too far away, I want to put down on paper some reflections on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

I mentioned towards the end of the session a proposal that the star of the play is not Ma Rainey. I believe the star is Levee, even though his end at the play’s conclusion is not a pleasant nor a pleasing one. Levee is the modernist, he represents the avant-garde, the next wave in musical composition, while Ma represents the old, entrenched way, the “old jug band music” to which Levee repeatedly refers.

Here is an interesting article on the historical Ma Rainey:

The Queer Black Woman Who Reinvented The Blues

But Levee has his own issues. He was emotionally traumatized as a child, forced to watch the gang-rape of his mother, then physically traumatized when he tried to stop the rape with a knife and was slashed with the knife across his chest. He was further traumatized when his father, seeking to exact revenge against the rapists (and successful in killing four of them), was caught, hung and burned in the woods. Wilson describes Levee in the scene-setter as flamboyant and buffoonish, as playing the wrong notes frequently, and as often confusing his skill with his talent.

Still, he is the star of the play, the archetype for Louis Armstrong, who as a young man played trumpet in Ma Rainey’s band.  See Louis Armstrong, the First Great American Modernist here: Was Louis Armstrong the First Great American Modernist?. My question is, was Wilson gently leading us to this conclusion?

We also took note of Levee’s obsession with shoes, getting into arguments twice in the play when band members “stepped” on his shoes, the final act resulting in an enraged Levee committing the knifing murder of the band leader, Toledo. We discussed in class the possible symbolism of Levee’s fixation on his shoes, although the class did not all agree that shoes may have symbolized mobility, transportation, moving out of a bad situation and moving towards a good or better one. I personally thought the shoe symbolism concept was one with merit, and I found myself on YouTube listening to Robert Johnson’s original “Walkin’ Blues” and more recent covers of the Johnson masterpiece by Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) (videos below).

Levee has yet another thematic connection to Robert Johnson. It is said that Robert Johnson “sold” his soul to the devil in exchange for his music talent. Levee mentions in two separate conversations his willingness to “sell” his soul to Satan in conjunction with his overall rejection of Christianity and more traditional beliefs. We saw that “skepticism” expressed by Becker in Jitney, and we’ll see it again with Troy in Fences. Maybe this is another conclusion Wilson himself is leading us to – skepticism as a humanist element of modern thought.

Some notes for today’s discussion on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Week Two – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

  1. Only play not set in Pittsburgh. Set in Chicago.
  2. 2nd play in series but Wlson considered it the first play in the cycle of decade plays.
  3. Actually two plays merged into one.
  4. In irony of all ironies, Broadway producers wanted Wilson to Turn it into a musical for better chance of commercial success. Instead, Wilson debuted it at Yale Rep in its original form, cementing a long and productive relationship with mentor, Lloyd Richards, Yale Rep director.
  5. Play is a bit of the three ring circus:
    1. Irvin, Sturdyvant, and Ma.
    2. Ma. Dussie, and Sylvester.
    3. Cutler, Slow Drag, Toledo, and Levee (the band)
  6. And minor constellations:
    1. Dussie and Levee
    2. Ma and Cutler
    3. Slow Drag and Cutler
    4. Toledo and Cutler
    5. Levee and Sturdyvant

OK. As promised, the Walkin’ Blues videos:

Robert Johnson original

Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia) cover

Here is the link to the whole website from Minnesota Public Radio: 
This link provides a speech August Wilson gave in Minnesota in 1991. The speech is not specific to any particular Wilson play, but provides rich background to character and plot development for all his plays.
Here is the playbill from the Yale Repertory Theater’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: 
Director and cast discuss Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom before opening night
Director and cast discuss Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom production


“In the 1920s, flappers broke away from the Victorian image of womanhood. They dropped the corset, chopped their hair, dropped layers of clothing to increase ease of movement, wore make-up, created the concept of dating, and became a sexual person. In breaking away from conservative Victorian values, flappers created what many considered the “new” or “modern” woman.”

“When The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, was released as a feature-length movie on October 6, 1927, it was the first movie that included dialogue and music on the filmstrip itself.

Adding Sounds to Film

“Before The Jazz Singer, there were silent films. Despite their name, these films were not silent for they were accompanied by music. Often, these films were accompanied by a live orchestra in the theater and from as early as 1900, films were often synchronized with musical scores that were played on amplified record players.

“The technology advanced in the 1920s when Bell Laboratories developed a way to allow an audio track to be placed on the film itself. This technology, called Vitaphone, was first used as a musical track in a film titled Don Juan in 1926. Although Don Juan had music and sound effects, there were no spoken words in the film.”

Carole Horn’s notes on Ma Rainey

October 1, 2018: My Ma Rainey notes—

Related to Toledo’s first revealing commentary, and based on the premise that August Wilson was a pretty brilliant auto didactic and did not include anything in this play that he did not choose with a purpose—the Hull Train Crash in February 1927 in England—two trains on the same track in head-on collision led to 1927 Pathe film Express Train Disaster;

carbon monoxide and hydrogen —in “all things change” lines are in fact a potentially explosive combination (which could be disastrous) and in 1927 covalent hydrogen bonding was revealed in a paper by London and Heitler which elucidated quantum mechanics, and Heisenberg uncertainty principle was also elucidated the same year—both of which provided information leading eventually to the atomic bomb.

Toledo ‘s references to changing and atoms and molecules and trains on the same track may suggest Wilson’s foreshadowing of Levee’s clashes with Cutler over the existence of God and with Toledo when he was overcome by anger—leading to two knife threats and a stabbing. Buddy Bolden was the cornetist credited by King Oliver as his influence—and King Oliver pioneered use of mutes, jazz solos—in Chicago in the 1920s.

Toledo’s almost correct logic premise statement: Aristotle says in logic it takes two premises to reach a conclusion—all men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal, is the classic Aristotelian example—Toledo is mortal, too.

His Pan Africanist “stew” comments about Slow Drag’s comments maybe related to WEB Dubois theories and Marcus Garvey’s Return to Africa movement—there were four world conferences—third in 1923 and fourth in 1927—at the time Toledo begins to develop his theory about how the white man has digested the stew of African natives and how all “Negroes” who remain are leftovers—

The Blind Lemon dedication May have been chosen because he struggled with the same problem Ma Rainey did—he was brought from Dallas to Chicago by Mayo Williams to record for Paramount and his first widely successful recording was in 1926–unhappy with what he was paid, he moved with Mayo Williams in 1927 to Okeh records for one record—may have accounted for some of Ma’s bravado about her options with Sturdyvant and her agent—

Lemon was born in Streetman, went from there to Dallas—knew Leadbelly and T Bone Walker—and wrote very popular railroad blues during the peak in the late 20s of the first wave of the mass migration.

Also in 1927, a doctor named Raymond Pearl attacked the theory of eugenics in a book labelled The Biology of Superiority, criticizing the use of race in eugenics theory (regarding superiority of the white race), another piece of information accessible to a reader like Toledo, and maybe informing his black stew commentary.

Louis Armstrong’s Mahogany Hill Stomp was a blues song about Lulu White’s brothel and barroom in New Orleans, where Levee offers to take Slow Drag to find a woman.

Cutler’s telling of the Reverend Gates story led me to find a reference to Rev. JM Gates from Georgia, who recorded sermons and gospel songs from the mid-20s till the 40s and who supposedly introduced Thomas Dorsey to black gospel.

Dorsey put together Ma Rainey’s Wildcats Jazz Band in the mid 20s: called Georgia Tom, he played with Tampa Red in her band, played blues piano and became an agent for Paramount records—so the Gates reference would seem to be another Wilson tribute to a “father” of gospel and jazz. Dorsey also had trouble getting paid by whites so opened the first black gospel recording company.

The six of diamonds—the card Toledo draws for the magic trick, is variously described as representing loss or absence of someone, or personal accountability or generosity wit strings attached—more foreshadowing of his fate?

And then there are the shoe and walking blues images, from the clodhoppers Toledo wears to those that pinch Ma’s feet to the ones she’s going to buy—yellow and a half size bigger—for her best girl Dussie , to Levee’s soon scuffed fancy new dream shoes.

Robert Johnson, Jazz guitarist, the walking blues singer, was credited with signing a pact with the devil for in a two year period transforming himself from an adequate to a brilliant performer—Wilson’s takeoff on the story is the Eliza Cotter carpetbagger passage.

And the money images, from the moon that slivers into 30 pieces of silver (betrayal, maybe, of Levee’s dream of making it big by Sturdyvent, who tells Ma’s agent Levee’s music is the future of jazz then lies to Levee, tells him no one wants to hear it, and gives him $10, and reneges on his band promise, all for his own profit.

Raymond, because I’m computer challenged, I’m not sure how to forward these to the group—so I’m sending it to you in hopes you can forward it on the group email/-if it comes back to me that way, I’ll know you succeeded—thanks so much for a wonderful class! Carole Horn

8 thoughts on “Some takeaways and some links to background material for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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