August Wilson Festival – Designers Panel: Building the World of August Wilson

(Note: Wrote this for my poetry group. More details to follow for August Wilson aficionados).

Morning coffee. Trader Joe’s Ethiopian. Got something called Lifeboost on order. Report to follow . . .

Last night my wife and I attended the first of several events marking 70 years of operation of Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Long story short, Arena Stage, a venue for plays, readings, performing arts, and most recently, really interesting civic discussions, came into existence at a time in the city’s history when there were two performing arts venues. One allowed blacks to perform on stage but they couldn’t attend performances and sit in the audience. The other allowed blacks to attend and sit in the audience but they couldn’t perform on the stage. Won’t go into names since both venues still exist, but it was a real mess. Such was the design of American-styled apartheid. Some civic-minded folks from both sides got together and Arena Stage was born, allowing both performance and attendance by all segments of society.

And there is a second tie in for me. To commemorate 70 years, Arena Stage is doing what they call a Giants series, featuring the works of playwrights whose work has been performed most often there. And at the top of the list is my favorite playwright, a former poet of note, whose series of plays I have been “teaching” in the ModPo sense and mode for the past two years, though face-to-face and not online, the bard from Pittsburgh, August Wilson.

Last night’s lecture/discussion focused on stage and set design and featured an expert in actually building the set, and expert in composing music to accompany the plays, and an expert in costume design (who just happens to be the widow of August Wilson and the executor of his estate). Amazing discussion about these pieces of a dramatic production that sort of sit in the background while we focus on the play’s performance, and yet have a far-reaching effect on developing the whole work of art. 

Thursday there will be a discussion of food and cooking in the ten-play series that covers each decade in the 20th century, aptly called the American Century Cycle.

By this time, you may be rolling your eyes. Relax, it is just coffee talk! 

Chapter 8. Jitney consolidated notes

Session #1

First, here is a link to the episode of Theater Talk that featured the Tony-award winning cast of Jitney in 2017:

It was interesting the way we focused our discussion on relationships, the peripheral relationship between Turnbo and Rena, the complex and layered relationship between Becker and Booster, and the evolving, dynamic, almost dance-like relationship between Rena and Youngblood.

Relationships are such an essential, human thing, always transforming, always reflecting the environment that surrounds them, for good or ill.

We could have easily spent the whole class period on Becker and Booster’s father-son relationship, Becker’s deep disappointment in the mistakes that his son made and the consequences of those mistakes, the hopes that Becker placed in Boomer, and the energy he attempted to transfer to the future where Boomer might have more and better opportunities than he had. But I also think that at some level, Boomer’s “acting up” and the decisions he took that incarcerated him were a rejection of the pressure he felt from his father, and a not so subtle decision that he was going to live his own life, not the one Becker tried to transfer over to him. At the play’s end, Boomer starts toward the door to leave the jitney office, but the phone rings, and after a negligible hesitation, Boomer goes over and answers the phone, “Car service” as the light fades to black. I think that motion and action symbolize that there is hope for Boomer and there is hope for the jitney operation.

There is of course a lot to be said about Youngblood and Rena. One thing we didn’t discuss was the tenderness of emotion Becker displayed in his conversation with Rena and Youngblood. Becker says towards the end of Act 2 Scene 1,

When you look around you’ll see that all you got is each other. There ain’t much more. Even when it look like there is…you come one day to find out there ain’t much more worth having.

Here we see that despite the gruff Becker displayed towards his own son, he never stopped developing as a father, never gave up on his own emotional development, and we are left wondering if one day he might have overcome his great disappointment and been able to show a similar level of affection for Boomer that he clearly has for Youngblood. Alas, Becker’s potential for development is arrested on the factory floor so we will never know. As Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”


Jim Becker, the well-respected manager of the jitney station. In his 60s.

Doub, a driver, cautious and slow going, a Korean War veteran. One of few August Wilson characters who is a military veteran.

Fielding, a driver, an alcoholic, formerly a tailor who clothed Billy Eckstine and Count Basie.

Turnbo, a driver, notorious for being a gossip.

YoungBlood (Darnell Williams), a driver. Recently returned from Vietnam, working several jobs to provide for his family. In his late 20s. Another rare veteran.

Rena, YoungBlood’s girlfriend and the mother of his young son, Jesse.

Shealy, a flamboyant bookie who uses the jitney station as the basis of his numbers running operations.

Philmore, a local Hotel doorman and a frequent jitney passenger.

Booster (Clarence Becker), Becker’s son, who has just completed a 20-year prison sentence for murder. In his early 40s.

Postscript. 1977. The seventies were considered by many the post-Civil Rights era. The seventies witnessed a local push back against urban renewal and opposition to 50’s and 60’s redevelopment projects in America’s urban areas.

p.s. There are the issues, peripheral and center stage, of urban renewal and prison reform, that bear discussion. Finally, the video of the revival Broadway production actors above discuss the idea that Wilson began writing Jitney, put it down to write Seven Guitars, then returned to Jitney later. Some characters and lines overlap…

Specifically in 1977:
• Patricia Roberts Harris is the first African-American woman to hold a cabinet position when Jimmy Carter appoints her to oversee Housing and Urban Development.
• Andrew Young is the first African-American to become a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
• For eight consecutive nights, the miniseries Roots is aired on national television. Not only is the miniseries the first to show viewers the impact of enslavement on American society, but it also achieved the highest ratings for a television program.

Links from Google Group.

The Light in August Wilson – Suzi-Lori Parks interview

This first link provides a speech August Wilson gave upon his return to 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 link to the whole website from Minnesota Public Radio:

1st meeting of August Wilson Century Series study group


Week 1 of the August Wilson study group is behind us! I thought 8-10 people would be an optimal size, but 18 signed up! We started off with an introduction to the methodology, focusing on the collaborative close read, and two concepts I borrowed from #Rhizo15, learning subjectives (vs objectives) coupled to the idea that “the community is the curriculum.”

Three quarters of the group members are retirees, one quarter are housewives and house husbands.

Here is what I posted to the Facebook ModPo Alumni Study Group:

Week 1 of my collaborative close read study group on August Wilson’s Century Series. The first play was “Jitney.”
1. First class went well. But we jammed together introductions and close read discussions in this first meeting and we ran out of time. I had hoped for 8 group members but we ended up with 18.
2. Implementing “The Community is the Curriculum” from #rhizo15 was/is a big hit. There are two high school english teachers in the group who have taught Wilson’s plays. There is a college professor who actually knew and was acquainted with August Wilson.Not everybody was able to access the Google Group where I had stashed a lot of background material. We hope to remedy that by 1) getting everybody a gmail account so they can access the group and 2} mirroring the group on a publicly accessible blog site.

3. Versioning presented a slight hiccup. Members had three versions of the play, so page # references didn’t align and we lost a minute or two in each presentation trying to get everybody on the same page (literally!).

4. It was interesting the way the group immediately seized on drawing general principles from specific instances in the play through the close reading process. (The play is about a small black community in 1970’s Pittsburgh but the group decided that the principles were/are universally applicable).
5. A big part of being a study group leader is conversation traffic direction! That’s a good problem to have because so far everybody is enthusiastic about contributing to the conversation .
6. In preparing the coursework and background material, I find a big role to be curation, looking for the best, most impactful “stuff” online to share with the group. Still ironing out technology wrinkles, i.e., some couldn’t access the Google Group (that I am trying to use in place of forums in the Coursera platform) and some are not in the habit of checking their email.
7. August Wilson considered himself a poet before he became a successful playwright and that comes through as we unpack the various sections of text (lines?, lyrics?).

Session #2.
Briefly, Jitney was August Wilson’s first big success at playwriting. Set in Pittsburgh, it played to sell out crowds in local theaters in 1982. It was late getting to Broadway, finally, in 2000, but to mixed reviews. But in 2017 it won the Tony for Best Revival and was a sensational success. Finally, the video of the revival Broadway production actors discuss the idea that Wilson began writing Jitney, put it down to write Seven Guitars, then returned to Jitney later. Some characters and lines overlap…
At the time of Jitney’s writing, August Wilson did not know (or was not aware) that he would be writing a century series of ten plays.

Some themes to consider as the plot(s) develops:
1. urban renewal/re-development. Cities that were the destination in the Great Migration being deconstructed, economic concentrations dissolved.
2. “black market” entrepreneurism. Unemployment high, services not being provided to black communities open door to off-the-books businesses.
3. relationships (men/women, men/men, father/son). Youngblood and Rena learning how to cope with each other. Becker and Booster, same. Youngblood and Turnbo conflict.
4. conflict resolution/manhood
5. incarceration/prison reform. Booster released. Counterpart to Youngblood in a sense.
6. rituals that punctuate daily life at the station. Checkers, the phone ringing, chats about relationships/women, blaming or not blaming whites for failures.

Cast of characters (from Professor Shannon):
1. The Hopefuls (Youngblood)
2. The Defeated (Fielding, Turnbo, Becker)
3. The Warriors (Booster)
4. The Survivors (Doub, Shealy, Philmore)

There has never been a series of plays written detailing/examining life and society in each decade of a century until August Wilson’s Century Cycle. All the plays except one are set in Pittsburgh (week two’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is set in Chicago), but the setting could easily have been any city that served as a destination city in the Great Migration. My own North Carolina family has branches that have expanded over the generations in New York, Baltimore, Washington, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, wherever there were jobs.

Only three theaters on Broadway are named for playwrights: Eugene O’Neill; Neil Simon; and August Wilson. We know from interviews that August Wilson said he never saw a play performed on stage before he started writing them, but I think it is safe to assume he had read plays during that autodidactic period (several years) he spent skipping school and making daily visits to the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.

Finally, no single city or place “owns” August Wilson. He sought to capture the spirit of a diaspora, of a movement of people and their adaptations to the new world they found themselves in. We will explore that idea in greater depth next week in Ma Rainey.

Like Shakespeare’s colleagues who collected his plays part by part, monologue by monologue, and soliloquy by soliloquy several years after his death, I’ll rely on you all to help me fill in the gaps I miss of our discussion each week. Please feel free to do so in the comments to this blog or in the submissions to the Google Group (or even in emails we send to each other). All channels are open. Below are a few notes I took to jog my memory.

We talked at length about the relationship between Becker and his son, Booster. Had time been available, we could have talked about Youngblood and Rena, or about the tender father/son relationship Becker built with Youngblood while Booster was incarcerated, or about the relationship mentioned briefly in our discussion between Becker and any single member of the cast/ensemble/community that “hung out” and was employed in one way or another at the jitney station. Those relationships were dynamic things, evolving and enriching the humans involved as well as reinforcing the knitted structure of the otherwise fractured community.
We spoke particularly about how the characters of Becker and Booster changed over time, with respect to each other and with respect to their own, individual development. We hypothesized Booster’s inability to process events that happened in his childhood, his arrested development while incarcerated, and his return to a development path after serving his prison term and returning home. We speculated that perhaps, given sufficient time, or perhaps it was even imminent, Booster and Becker would reconcile and get their relationship back on a solid developmental path. But Becker died in the factory, and, we anticipate, Booster took over the jitney operation.

I confess I had not focused on Turnbo’s passing mention of the Sputnik and its impact until someone in class today brought it up,

Booster he liked science….won first place three years in a row (in the science fair)…. had his picture in the paper…. They let him into the University of Pittsburgh. You know back then they didn’t have too many colored out there, but they was trying to catch up to the Russians and they didn’t care if he was colored or not. Gave him a scholarship and everything.

After zeroing in on that passage at the beginning of Act 1 scene 3, I understood that not only was Becker extremely disappointed in Booster’s outcome, Turnbo was also disappointed. It may help explain the conflict we see between Turnbo and Youngblood, perhaps misplaced (or displaced), but reflective of Turnbo’s disappointment and disgust with the next generation, who, perhaps he felt, had opportunities that his generation did not. The same passage also provides a glimpse into the relationship between Booster and Susan, barely a glimpse, but enough to fuel our speculations.

We talked about the authenticity and poetic nature of the language of the play. And we talked about the exclusion, or the explicit absence of whites in the play’s action, in the scenes as portrayed, but of their presence behind the scenes, their implicit presence, a sort of second order existence throughout.

Late entry: I left out our discussion of Wilson’s 4B sources of inspiration:
Jorge Luis Borges (the librarian and poet),Romare Bearden (the collagist and painter),Amiri Baraka (the Black Arts movement poet, dramatist, and essayist),and the Blues.

Session #3.

Background and lifecycle of the play itself. The first edition of Jitney was completed in the 70’s and performed in 1982 by a small theater group in Pittsburgh. Wilson completed writing that early version of the play in ten days. Although it became the first completed play in the century cycle, at the time of its writing Wilson had no idea he’d be writing a play for each decade. Following his success with a produced play, Wilson declared himself a playwright and submitted Jitney to the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis in the mid 80’s, receiving a prize award of $2500. But when he submitted it to the National Playwrights’ Conference of the O’Neill Theater Center in New York it was rejected. Twice. He put it away and worked on other plays. Then, after completing Seven Guitars in 1985, he took a second look at Jitney and revised it, making the second act longer and adding several monologues throughout. Jitney was produced off Broadway in 2000, directed by Marion McClinton. In 2017 it was produced on Broadway as a revival, where it earned the Tony for Best Revival.

Characters as individuals. Jim Becker, called, “Becker,” manages the jitney station, which he has run for several years. He is a community pillar-type guy, retired from the mill, a homeowner, and deacon at his church. He settles squabbles between the other drivers. Doub, one of the drivers, even-tempered, is a Korean War veteran. Fielding, another driver, is an alcoholic, and was formerly a tailor who clothed for Count Basie and Billy Eckstine. Turnbo, yet another driver, gets involved in everybody’s business and also has a hot temper when he feels he has been disrespected (which is most of the time). YoungBlood (Darnell Williams), is the youngest driver on the staff. He is a Vietnam veteran in his late 20’s. He works several jobs to support his young family. Rena is YoungBlood’s girlfriend and the mother of his young son, Jesse. Shealy uses the jitney station payphone to run his numbers operation. Philmore is a frequent jitney customer and a doorman at a local hotel. Booster (Clarence Becker), Becker’s son, is in his early 40’s. An outstanding scholar athlete in high school, he has just completed a 20-year prison sentence for murder.

Characters as groups and relationships. A key relationship in the play is the father-son relationship between Becker and his son, Booster. Booster showed great promise in his youth and earned a scholarship to Pitt. But in his first year he gets tangled up with a young coed and when they are caught in a compromising position, she claims rape. Long story short, he ends up murdering her and spending 20 years in prison. Pops is extremely disappointed and never visits Booster in the 20 years of his incarceration. When Booster is released, they attempt in a staccato way to rebuild their relationship.

Rena and YoungBlood are learning to be a couple and their relationship in the play floods and ebbs. Doub and Youngblood, both military veterans but of different generations, have an interesting almost father-son relationship. Becker and Youngblood have a similar father-son relationship. Fielding has an on and off relationship with Becker, his employer basically. In that light, Becker has an ongoing relationship with each driver. Turnbo has a very toxic relationship with YoungBlood. Shealy and Becker are pretty much polar opposites.

Compressed space considerations (play setting compared to others in the series). Each play in the series is set in a compressed space where characters sort of bounce off each other. The Jitney Station is no exception and if anything, breaks new ground for starkness and sterility for a Wilson play setting, in my opinion. That starkness and sterility adds to the plot flow as much as anything. The payphone is a handy device for pushing the action along. Jitney orders come in, as do numbers orders, as do phone calls from a variety of callers, family members, potential employees, outside contacts. Today, of course, Jitney operations would exist exclusively online (like Uber and Lyft) without the requirement for a station, much less a physical payphone.

Current events of the time, i.e., urban renewal and gentrification, incarceration, returning Vietnam Veterans, informal economy, fratricidal arguments. Urban renewal is a primary motive force in the play. The prospective boarding up and eventual destruction of the jitney station has everybody on edge as it may mean a potential end of employment and an end to an essential community service that has become a means of production. Mention is made of other business getting boarded up in the community. Eventually, whole communities are lost to urban renewal, with the promise, of course, that substitutes, especially for housing, will be forthcoming. In retrospect, we can see the beginning, not only of lost of business communities, but also of the problem of homelessness that plagues many American cities today. Spatial deconcentration, a by-product of urban renewal, resulted in the break-up of communities, of economies, of families.
It was also a time of returning Vietnam War veterans, many looking for a reward for their service overseas. We see that representation in YoungBlood, but we also see it in Booster, returning the world, as the vets used to say, trying to figure things out after 20 years of incarceration.

Returning vets, returning prisoners, looking for jobs where there were none, resorted to making ends meet in the informal economy, some call it the black or gray economy, outside the rules and regulations of regular business. Jitney companies’ emerged, providing rides and jobs for drivers in a place where there were few transportation options. August Wilson said, “The important thing was for me to show five guys working and creating something out of nothing.” This was one aspect of the informal economy, and perhaps a positive one. There were negative ones: selling drugs, prostitution and the beginning of human trafficking all emerged during this same period.

The repetition of fratricidal arguments in the struggling community, conflicting egos, some actually trying to do right, is represented in Jitney in the big argument between YoungBlood and Turnbo that almost ends in catastrophe. In Scene 3 of Act One, murder and tragedy are avoided but we have a good model for how normal differences coupled with misunderstandings can get escalated into chaos.

Central ethical theme of responsibility, even when options for exploration are limited. We will discuss this at length in our group meeting. Wilson, through Becker, Youngblood, Doub, and Booster (and others) dedicates lengthy sections of monologue to the theme of responsibility, moral and ethical.

Checkers vs. chess and other games of strategy. Just a short mention of checkers is in the play, but it made me consider some of the ramifications of game-playing in the series and how it evolves over the decades, from the hambone of Joe Turner, to the card-playing in Seven Guitars, to sports in Fences, to checkers in Jitney, to golf later in Radio Golf.

Fall fallow

I won’t be leading discussions of the August Wilson Century Cycle plays this Fall, not at OLLI, not at Moonlit. I will, however be reviewing each play sequentially, beginning with Gem of the Ocean, after Labor Day, in preparation, hopefully for a presentation I have proposed for the biannual August Wilson Colloquium in Pittsburgh next Spring.

Check back from time to time for notes and discussion.

AWS Colloquium 2020 – presentation proposal

Proposal title: To preserve and make accessible the human record: the archivist as storyteller and facilitator in the pedagogical ecology of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle

Whether one goes to a bookstore or a theater to “buy” a particular August Wilson play, one is not merely purchasing entertainment for the evening in the traditional sense of going to a movie or a play or taking part in a temporal event. My experience of leading discussions of the American Century Cycle plays with adult learners, one by one, over several sessions, has convinced me that each play in the Cycle, and all the plays in the aggregate, represents a collection of human records. These records exist in a continuous and dramatic form as encoded documents that tell us the history of a people at critical junctures in their development. But the plays also  present us with a learning system for understanding human existence, theirs and ours, on the page, on the stage and screen, and in our lives. Exposure to this encoded learning system, whether consciously or unconsciously, I propose, may account in part for the continued popularity of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays.

In this paper, I will analyze these learning system features, this pedagogical ecology as set forth in one play as an example, defining terms along the way. I will include in the discussion the syllabus of learning aids we developed in our discussions that smoothed the bumps in the learning process, obstacles I would like to imagine the playwright intentionally placed to aid the student, the reader or the playgoer in achieving the mastery he intended for us to achieve. In our study groups we discuss the Cycle as a voyage, a journey, and an initiation into a mystic order. In this paper we begin the process of unmasking the process, revealing the aspects of the Cycle’s inherent learning system so that it becomes universally accessible and applicable.

NY Times Obit: Overlooked No More: Ma Rainey, the ‘Mother of the Blues’

Re-posted from the New York Times Obit page, June 12, 2019.

With her unapologetic lyrics, Rainey proudly proclaimed her bisexuality and helped to mainstream black female narratives in a musical style that later became a nationwide craze.Ma Rainey around 1923. Often called the “Mother of the Blues,” she developed a reputation for her energizing, straight-talking performances and full-throated vocals even before the blues became a nationwide craze.CreditDonaldson Collection/Getty Images

Ma Rainey around 1923. Often called the “Mother of the Blues,” she developed a reputation for her energizing, straight-talking performances and full-throated vocals even before the blues became a nationwide craze.CreditCreditDonaldson Collection/Getty Images

June 12, 2019

Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. This month we’re adding the stories of important L.G.B.T.Q. figures.

By Giovanni Russonello

Ma Rainey did not make the first blues recording; that distinction belongs to Mamie Smith, the vaudevillian who recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920. And Rainey did not achieve the monumental acclaim of Bessie Smith, her mentee and, later, friendly rival.

But it’s possible that neither of these figures would have sung the way they did without the influence of Rainey.

Often called the “Mother of the Blues,” she was the first entertainer to successfully bridge the divide between vaudeville — the cabaret-style shows that developed out of minstrelsy in the mid-1800s, and catered largely to white audiences — and authentic black Southern folk expression.

Even before the recording industry took off in the 1920s and the blues became a nationwide craze, she had developed a national reputation for her energizing, straight-talking performances and full-throated vocals. As the biographer Sandra Lieb observed in “Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey” (1983), by combining a black folk style with techniques learned on the vaudeville stage, Rainey “offered to whites a glimpse into black culture far less obscured by white expectations, and offered to blacks a more direct affirmation” of their cultural power.

In the process, Rainey helped to mainstream narratives of black female autonomy that had little to do with the Victorian norms of white society. Partly that meant speaking candidly about her attraction to women as well as men. In “Prove It on Me Blues,”accompanied by a jug band, she sings defiantly:

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.

They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.

It’s true I wear a collar and a tie,

Makes the wind blow all the while.

Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.

You sure got to prove it on me.

A Georgia native, Rainey began her career on the tent-show circuit, traveling with performance troupes that set up their own stages in towns across the South and Midwest, honing her own gregarious brew of music, comedy and social commentary.

The characters in Rainey’s songs rarely allowed themselves to become dependent on a male partner, or any agent of the law. “Far more typical,” the scholar and activist Angela Davis wrote in the book “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” (1998), “are songs in which women explicitly celebrate their right to conduct themselves as expansively and even as undesirably as men.”

In Rainey’s blues — many of which she wrote herself — even the most jilted narrator was unlikely to fall into despair. In “Oh Papa Blues,” after detailing her grievances against a neglectful lover, Rainey turns on a dime, steeling herself to exact revenge.

Oh, papa, think when you away from home

You just don’t want me now, wait and see

You’ll find some other man makin’ love to me, now

Papa, papa, you ain’t got no mama now.

With a mouthful of gold teeth, richly dark skin and flashy jewelry dangling about her, Rainey cast a striking figure, with a ruggedly powerful voice and lavish stage presence to match.

“When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle,” the pianist and composer Thomas A. Dorsey, who was the musical director on some of her best-known recordings, wrote in his unpublished memoirs.

“She was in the spotlight,” he added. “She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the blues with her.”

Sterling Brown, the poet and pioneering black literary critic, put it even more directly: “Ma really knew these people; she was a person of the folk.”

She was also a celebrity. Of the nearly 100 songs she recorded in the 1920s, many were national hits, and some have become part of the American musical canon. Her 1924 recording of “See See Rider,” on which she is accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004.

We know that Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett, the second of five children to Ella (Allen) and Thomas Pridgett. But beyond that, details are sketchy. Rainey often said she was born on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Ga., but a 1900 census entry lists her birthplace as Alabama and her birth date as September 1882.

When her father died in 1896, her mother went to work for the Central Railway of Georgia. Gertrude began singing professionally as a teenager, making her first public performance in 1900 at the Springer Opera House in Columbus, where she joined a stage show called “The Bunch of Blackberries.” She was soon traveling with vaudeville acts.

It was while on the road, in Missouri in 1902, that she first heard a country blues singer. A young woman came up to the troupe’s tent with a guitar, singing a song of heartbreak with a twisting, ghostly melody. Rainey found herself so struck by the tune’s mysterious pathos that she began singing the song as an encore at her own shows.

Traveling throughout the rural South, Rainey began to hear similar songs, and she worked more country blues into her repertoire. The blues style — based on a pentatonic scale with an African-derived blue note, and generally following a loose, repetitious form — was such a natural fit for her that at one point she said she had invented the term “blues,” although most historians consider that claim to be an exaggeration.

In 1904, Rainey married the comedian, dancer and vocalist Will Rainey, and they toured as a duo with a variety of minstrel troupes, billing themselves as Ma and Pa Rainey. In the mid-1910s, the couple joined Moses Stokes’s tent show, then hit the road for a few years with Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza, which touted the couple as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.” For a time they performed with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, perhaps the most esteemed troupe of the day.

At some point during her travels, Rainey became acquainted with a young Bessie Smith, who was then performing as a chorus girl, and became Smith’s mentor. Not only were they both virtuoso singers; they shared a love of bold, risqué lyrics, and each proudly proclaimed her bisexuality. During one tour, after Rainey was caught by the Chicago police in the midst of a sexual dalliance with some of her female dancers, it was Smith who came to bail her out of jail.

Rainey separated from her husband in 1916 and began touring with her own show, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set, which included a chorus line of male and female dancers. (She later married a younger man, though details of that relationship are scarce.) Rainey often closed her set with “See See Rider,” a lament for a lover whose primary romantic partner comes back into the picture. “I’m goin’ away, baby, won’t be back till fall/Lawd, lawd, lawd,” she sings on the recorded version. “Goin’ away, baby, won’t be back till fall./If I find me a good man, I won’t be back at all.”

Like many tent shows, Rainey’s often holed up for the winter in New Orleans. In the off-season she became friends with a number of the city’s leading jazz musicians, including Armstrong, Kid Ory and King Oliver.Rainey in about 1924 with Thomas A. Dorsey, right, with whom she assembled a touring band that could play both homespun blues and written sheet music — an early example of the archetypal jazz musician’s skill set.CreditJP Jazz Archives/Redferns

Rainey in about 1924 with Thomas A. Dorsey, right, with whom she assembled a touring band that could play both homespun blues and written sheet music — an early example of the archetypal jazz musician’s skill set.CreditJP Jazz Archives/Redferns

In 1923, Rainey traveled to Chicago to record for the first time for the Paramount Record Company. Riding the breakout success of these recordings, she and Dorsey assembled a touring band that could play both homespun blues and written sheet music — an early example of the archetypal jazz musician’s skill set.

Between 1923 and 1928, with “race records” by and for the black community becoming a thriving industry, Rainey went on to record no fewer than 92 songs for the small Wisconsin-based Paramount label. But Paramount had a low budget compared with major outfits like Okeh and Columbia (for which Bessie Smith cut her most famous sides), and Rainey’s recordings were of mediocre sound quality.

When Paramount went bankrupt in the 1930s, they fell out of print. Other labels recirculated parts of her catalog, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that most of her recordings received a proper reissue, on the Milestone and Biograph labels.

She lived for much of the 1920s and ’30s in Chicago, performing in concert and at house parties with jazz musicians like Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, and touring the country often. In 1935, Rainey returned to Georgia and effectively retired, though she worked for a few years as a theater proprietor.

Ma Rainey died of a heart attack on Dec. 22, 1939. Ever since, paeans to her have been a motif of black music and letters. The blues guitarist and vocalist Memphis Minnie recorded a tribute to her in 1940, telling the story of her life and cataloging the names of her famous songs. Sterling Brown’s poem “Ma Rainey” evoked the thrill of her performances, and the validation that she offered to black listeners of the era.

O Ma Rainey,

Sing yo’ song;

Now you’s back

Whah you belong,

Git way inside us,

Keep us strong.

Even in the late 1960s, at the height of the Black Arts Movement and long after her death, Rainey continued to hold a special significance in the heart of black America as an early ambassador of empowered sexuality and personal liberation. The poet Al Young wrote “A Dance for Ma Rainey” in 1969, proclaiming: “I’m going to be just like you, Ma/Rainey this monday morning.”

Later in the poem, he pledged:

I’m going to hover in the corners

of the world, Ma

& sing from the bottom of hell

up to the tops of high heaven