Sterling Brown

“Ma Rainey” (1932)


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.

“Strong Men” (1931)

The young men keep coming on
The strong men keep coming on

They dragged you from homeland,
They chained you in coffles,
They huddled you spoon-fashion in filthy hatches,
They sold you to give a few gentlemen ease.

They broke you in like oxen,
They scourged you,
They branded you,
They made your women breeders,
They swelled your numbers with bastards. . . .
They taught you the religion they disgraced.

You sang:
Keep a-inchin’ along
Lak a po’ inch worm. . . .

You sang:
Bye and bye
I’m gonna lay down dis heaby load . . .

You sang:
Walk togedder, chillen,
Dontcha git weary. . . .
The strong men keep a-comin’ on
The strong men git stronger.

They point with pride to the roads you built for them
They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them
They put hammers in your hands
And said—Drive so much before sundown.

You sang:
Ain’t no hammah
In dis lan’,
Strikes lak mine, bebby,
Strikes lak mine.

They cooped you in their kitchens,
They penned you in their factories,
They gave you the jobs that they were too good for,
They tried to guarantee happiness to themselves
By shunting dirt and misery to you.

You sang:
Me an’ muh baby gonna shine, shine
Me an’ muh baby gonna shine.
The strong men keep a-comin’ on
The strong men git stronger. . . .

They bought off some of your leaders
You stumbled, as blind men will. . . .
They coaxed you, unwontedly soft-voiced. . . .
You followed a way.
Then laughed as usual.

They heard the laugh and wondered;
Unadmitting a deeper terror. . . .
The strong men keep a-comin’ on
Gittin’ stronger. . . .

What, from the slums
Where they have hemmed you
What, from the tiny huts
They could not keep from you—
What reaches them
Making them ill at ease, fearful?
Today they shout prohibition at you
“Thou shalt not this.”
“Thou shalt not that.”
“Reserved for whites only”
You laugh.

One thing they cannot prohibit —
The strong men . . . coming on
The strong men gittin’ stronger.
Strong men. . . .
Stronger. . . .

“Slim [Greer] in Hell” (1933)

Slim Greer went to heaven;
St. Peter said, “Slim,
You been a right good boy.”
An’ he winked at him.

“You been travelin’ rascal
In yo’day.
You kin roam once mo’;
Den you come to stay.

“Put dese wings on yo’ shoulders,
An’ save yo’ feet.”
Slim grin, and he speak up,
“Thankye, Pete.”

Den Peter say, “Go
To Hell an’ see,
All dat is doing, and
Report to me.

“Be sure to remember
How everything go.”
Slim say, “I be seein’ yuh
On de late watch, bo.”

Slim got to cavortin’
Swell as you choose,
Like Lindy in de Spirit
Of St. Louis Blues.

He flew an’ he flew,
Till at last he hit
A hangar wid de sign readin’

Den he parked his wings,
An’ strolled aroun’,
Gittin’ used to his feet
On de solid ground.

Big bloodhound came aroarin’
Like Niagry Falls,
Sicked on by white devils
In overhalls.

Now Slim warn’t scared
Cross my heart, it’s a fac’,
An de dog went on a bayin’
Some po’ devil’s track.

Den Slim saw a mansion
An’ walked right in;
De Devil looked up
Wid a sickly grin.

“Suttingly didn’t look
Fo’ you, Mr. Greer,
How it happens you comes
To visit here?”

Slim say—“Oh, jes’ thought
I’d drop by a spell.”
“Feel at home, seh, an’ here’s
De keys to hell.”

Den he took Slim around
An’ showed him people
Rasin’ hell as high as
De first Church Steeple.

Lots of folks fightin’
At de roulette wheel,
Like old Rampart Street,
Or leastwise Beale.

Showed him bawdy houses
An’ cabarets,
Slim thought of New Orleans
An’ Memphis days.

Each devil was busy
Wid a devlish broad,
An’ Slim cried, “Lawdy,
Lawd, Lawd, Lawd.”

Took him in a room
Where Slim see
De preacher wid a brownskin
On each knee.

Showed him giant stills,
Going everywhere,
Wid a passel of devils
Stretched dead drunk there.

Den he took him to de furnace
Dat some devils was firing,
Hot as Hell, an’ Slim start
A mean presspirin’.

White devils with pitchforks
Threw black devils on,
Slim thought he’d better
Be gittin’ along.

An’ he says—“Dis makes
Me think of home—
Vicksburg, Little Rock, Jackson,
Waco and Rome.”

Den de devil gave Slim
De big Ha-Ha;
An’ turned into a cracker,
Wid a sheriff’s star.

Slim ran fo’ his wings,
Lit out from de groun’
Hauled it back to St. Peter,
Safety boun’.

St. Peter said, “Well,
You got back quick.
How’s de devil? An’ what’s
His latest trick?”

An’ Slim Say, “Peter,
I really cain’t tell,
The place was Dixie
That I took for hell.”

Then Peter say, “you must
Be crazy, I vow,
Where’n hell dja think Hell was,

“Git on back to de yearth,
Cause I got de fear,
You’se a leetle too dumb,
Fo’ to stay up here. . .”