Tag Archives: Ma Rainey

black bottoms

Trivia question: What early 1900s dance became a blues song, then a play and finally a movie, which is due out later this year? If you answered “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” you would be correct. This is an upcoming American drama film directed by George C. Wolfe, based on the play of the same name by black poet, playwright and author August Wilson (1945-2005). The film stars Viola Davis (“How to Get Away with Murder,” “Fences”) and  Chadwick Boseman (“42,” “Black Panther”) in his final film role prior to his death in August 2020. It centers on a fateful recording session of “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey in Chicago. The content of both the play and film deals with issues of race, music, relationships, and the white exploitation of black recording artists.

“Originating among African Americans in the rural South, the black bottom [dance] eventually was adopted by mainstream American culture and became a national craze in the 1920s. The dance was most famously performed by Ann Pennington, a star of the Ziegfeld Follies, who performed it in a Broadway revue staged by Ziegfeld’s rival George White in 1926. The dance originated in New Orleans in the first decade of the 20th century. The jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Martin, wrote the tune ‘Black Bottom Stomp,’ its title referring to the Black Bottom area of Detroit,” explains Wikipedia.

There is a common misconception that blues is only music, but many scholars believe that blues lyrics are literary works as well. Was Huckleberry Finn really a bluesman? Stop your snickering and listen to the views of literary critic Robert O’Meally who views Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a blues novel. “While sitting in his study reading the novel, O’Meally observed, ‘the bluesiness of Huck’s tale sounded through the book’s pages…Huck knows how to solo; and like a true bluesman, he learns to swing…my love for this book—wrong notes and all—is linked, tied as tight as the strings of old Robert Johnson’s blues guitar’.” (R. Ferris in go.gale.com)

Although the “Black Bottom” story started around the turn of the century as a dance, it was turned into a stage play in 1982 by the double Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. His play concerns a  blues recording session in 1927. The plot is about rising tensions between “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable singer. Rainey was portrayed as being upset with the horn player making advances toward her female lover called “Dussie Mae” (probably blues singer Bessie Smith in real life). Ma was also determined to control the content and style of her music instead of giving in to the aggressive white management which was trying to do the same thing. Verbal sparks fly. Both the play and upcoming movie portray Ma as insisting that her 1927 song “Black Bottom” be included. Some of the song’s lyrics are as follows:

“The other night at a swell affair
Soon as the boys found out that I was there
They said, ‘Come on, Ma let’s go to the cabaret’
Where that band you ought to hear me say

I want to see that dance you call the black bottom
I wanna learn that dance
Don’t you see the dance you call your big black bottom
That’ll put you in a trance

Now, you heard the rest
Ah, boys, I’m gonna show you the best
Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom.”

In the upcoming movie version, “triple crown” (Tony, Emmy and Oscar) winner Viola Davis plays the unstoppable, cantankerous Ma Rainey while the smoothly talented Chadwick Boseman portrays the oversexed horn player who is determined to share a bed with Ma’s lover and carve out his own niche in the recording industry. Fans of the “Black Panther,” saddened by Boseman’s early passing, will get another (and last) chance to see their hero perform on the silver screen. Personally, I can’t wait to see these two marvelous actors square off. Davis is the first black actor to win a triple crown. She dislikes being called an “actress,” asking: “When is the last time you have heard a female doctor being called a doctress?”   

Veteran black actor Denzel Washington initially had a deal with the television network HBO to produce nine of August Wilson’s plays into films, with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” amongst them. By June 2019, the deal had been moved to Netflix. Washington praised Boseman saying: “He was a gentle soul and a brilliant artist who will stay with us for eternity through his iconic performances over his short yet illustrious career. God bless Chadwick Boseman.”

The son of a German father and African American mother, August Wilson’s awards are too numerous to mention here, but expect some more awards to come from the silver screen debut of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Depending on how well the film does in the box office, it’s quite possible that an Oscar could go to Viola Davis for best actor and a posthumous statue to Chadwick Boseman for best supporting actor. Best Picture award for 2020? Maybe.

Ma Rainey sings “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

stagger lee

It is not unusual for blues songs dating back to the 1920s or before to be re-recorded in different genres. Along the way, much of the blues feeling and intent of the original song is lost or misinterpreted. One of the greatest examples of this process is “Stagger Lee,” a blues song first published in 1911, and then recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. In 1925, “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey recorded the second version of the song as “Stack O’Lee Blues.” The song had actually been doing the rounds of the South, travelling up and down the Mississippi River, since the turn of the century, claims the website udiscovermusic.com.

The historical Stagger Lee was Lee Shelton, a black pimp living in St. Louis, Missouri in the late 19th century. He was nicknamed Stag Lee or Stack Lee, with a variety of explanations being given: 1) he was given the nickname because he “went stag,” meaning he was without friends; 2) he took the nickname from a well-known riverboat captain called Stack Lee; or, 3) according to John and Alan Lomax, he took the name from a riverboat owned by the Lee family of Memphis called the Stack Lee, which was known for its on-board prostitution. 

“Shelton was well known locally as one of the Macks, a group of pimps who demanded attention through their flashy clothing and appearance. In addition to these activities, he was the captain of a black Four Hundred Club, a social club with a dubious reputation,” says Wikipedia.

“Stagger Lee” is all about an incident that happened on Christmas night in 1895 while Shelton and his acquaintance William “Billy” Lyons were drinking in the Bill Curtis Saloon. Lyons was also a member of St. Louis’ underworld, and may have been a political and business rival to Shelton. After a lot of drinking and gambling, Lyons grabbed Shelton’s Stetson hat, a definite fighting matter. Subsequently, Shelton shot Lyons in the stomach, recovered his hat, and left. Lyons died shortly afterward and Shelton was convicted of the murder in 1897. Shelton was paroled in 1909, but soon got into trouble again and was returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery; he died in there in 1912.

A string of different “Stagger Lee” versions have been recorded by Furry Lewis (1927), Long Clive Reed (1927), Frank Hutchison (1927), Woody Guthrie (1956), Lonnie Donegan (1956), Taj Mahal (1969) and Bob Dylan (1993). Cab Calloway and His Orchestra recorded a song entitled ‘Stack O Lee Blues’, but his version had nothing lyrically to do with the original, claims Richard Havers in udiscovermusic.com. Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording is considered the definitive version by blues scholars. Some of his lyrics go like this:

“Police officer, how can it be?
You can ‘rest everybody but cruel Stack O’ Lee
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
Billy de Lyon told Stack O’ Lee, ‘Please don’t take my life,
I got two little babies, and a darlin’ lovin’ wife’

That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
‘What I care about you little babies, your darlin’ lovin’ wife?
You done stole my Stetson
Hat, I’m bound to take your life.”

Some sources say that recordings of this song number in the hundreds and that the Stagger Lee tale has been told and retold in venues other than just music. According to staggerlee.com, over 400 different artists have recorded this song since the first recording in 1923. Margaret Walker and James Baldwin wrote poems from the song. It’s been refashioned as a musical, two novels, a short story, an award-winning graphic novel, Ph.D. dissertations, and a pornographic feature film. “Stagger Lee” has lived as Ragtime, a Broadway showtune, Blues, Jazz, Honky Tonk, Country, ‘50s Rock and Roll, Ska, Folk, Surf, ‘70s punk, Heavy Metal, ‘90s punk, Rap. Even Hawaiian. The song’s character lives large in Gangsta Rap. Listen to it and we hear the evolution of modern music.

Probably the most familiar version of “Stagger Lee” (at least to baby boomers) was recorded in 1958 by R&B vocalist Lloyd Price. His version of the song reached number one on the Billboard list and stayed there for four weeks in 1959. Some of his lyrics are as follows:

“Stagger Lee went to the barroom
And he stood across the barroom door
He said, nobody move and he pulled his
Forty-four, Ooh

Stagger Lee, (oh Stagger Lee) cried Billy (oh Stagger Lee)
Oh, please (oh Stagger Lee) don’t take my life (oh Stagger Lee)
I’ve got three little (oh Stagger Lee) children and a very (oh Stagger Lee)
Sickly wife (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)

Stagger Lee (oh Stagger Lee) shot Billy (oh Stagger Lee)
Oh, he shot (oh Stagger Lee) that poor boy so bad (oh Stagger Lee)
‘Till the bullet (oh Stagger Lee) came through Billy (oh Stagger Lee)and it broke the bar (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)
Tender’s glass (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)”

Lloyd Price sings “Stagger Lee”