The Blues Tribute Poem and the Legacies of Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey and Bessie Smith.
Drawing inspiration from an African American blues woman rather than a classical goddess, Sterling Brown's “Ma Rainey” (1930) adapts the Western muse trope to a blues context, transforming the blues star Gertrude “Ma” Rainey into a symbol of folk authenticity. Subsequently, Myron O'Higgins (Brown's former student) composed “Blues for Bessie” (1945), the first homage to Bessie Smith, constructing her as a martyr for racial equality. While a relatively extensive amount of scholarship has been devoted to classic blues women and the blues more generally, the relationship between poetic representations of Rainey and Smith and these women's legacies has remained understudied. This essay explores how “Ma Rainey” and “Blues for Bessie” both reproduce and depart from the personae that Rainey and Smith cultivated as early African American women stars. Brown and O'Higgins created a now distinct and influential subgenre of American poetry, combining the mythic and the historical, the oral blues tradition and the written poetic one, enjoining readers to similarly imagine, listen, and internalize the images and narratives tribute poets advance. As the first such tributes, the precedent “Ma Rainey” and “Blues for Bessie” set for the numerous twentieth- and twenty-first-century tributes dedicated to famous African American musicians of all genres demands closer consideration.
Rutter, Emily. 2014. “The Blues Tribute Poem and the Legacies of Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey and Bessie Smith." MELUS 39(4): 69-91.
Oxford University Press