The Black Bottom Where Levee’s About to Break

“The sadness will last forever.”

– Vincent Van Gogh’s deathbed words to his brother, Theo.

‘Black bottom’ has all kinds of connotations. One thinks of ragtime mommas in the Jazz Age waggling their tails on some vaudeville stage, early precursors to the Black Eyed Peas (“Get you love drunk off my hump”). One thinks of abysses, black holes where no light can escape, where all is gravity. One thinks of the Black experience in America (“I’m Black alright, they’ll never let me forget it.” -Miles Davis, Tribute to Jack Johnson). One things of the bottom, down and out, nowhere lower to go this side of the manufactured Inferno. Black the palette of all colors, except white.

Black Bottom also refers to a section of Detroit, along Hastings Street (Paradise Valley) that, beginning in the 1920s, saw Jewish residents flee their neighborhoods and be replaced by Black families. I recently watched on YouTube a local TV special, Detroit Classic, in which author and historian Ken Coleman explains the origin thusly,

The African-Americans that came from the American South, and other places around the country, settled in the lower east side community, just outside of Detroit, known as Black Bottom. And many people would believe that Black Bottom was named for the African-Americans that lived there in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, but that’s not so. The name Black Bottom comes from the fertile top soil that is in that community…In the 1800s, that was largely farmland….

The 20-minute segment, that includes interviews with musicians, is well worth a watch, as it provides a précis of the loamy loam origins of Detroit blues and R&B.

In August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, black is all those things and more, combined into a soulful “stew” called the blues. The Black Bottom makes its way into song by way of Jelly Roll Morton, who had a popular 1925 hit with “Black Bottom Stomp,” which still holds up today. It was a hit at the time in Black America’s home away from home — Paris — too. Wilson’s play actually helps depict the transition from self-reflective blues to get-up-and-dance, that helps one understand the difference between Dylan and Marley, and comes together in, self-consciously, in Bowie. It answers the question: What am I gonna do with all this baggage I carry around? Put it down and dance, hopefully with musical accompaniment.

(I recall for a minute, David Bromberg’s great take on the song, “Mr. Bojangles,” during which he takes time (still strumming) to explain the origins of the song:

This is a true story… This guy, Bojangles, he was a street dancer in New Orleans,. He’d go from bar to bar … put money in the jukebox…and…dance or pantomime to the tune, right? [P]eople would buy him drinks… get him pretty drunk. Then he’d go on to the next bar and the next… After a few nights of this, he’d end up on the corner, where the cops would pick him up and take him to the drunk tank, which is where Jerry Jeff [Walker, Bromberg’s bandmate] met him. Jerry Jeff wasn’t there on a research project. The way I got it, he propositioned the right woman at the right time in the wrong place, and her husband, the bartender, called the cops, and they took him to the Parish jail….

R&B. Let’s dance. White Man’s burden.)

The Bromberg distraction, though irreverent, is not totally irrelevant to the storyline of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, as “Mr. Bojangles” also depicts the co-optation of the Black and blues, some stranger’s private danse macabre seen as entertainment, rueful intellectualized empathy without follow-up action other than to drown another’s Sorrow in another drink. Nobody really cares about Bojangles. There’s a touch of the Twilight Zone about it. You almost expect Rod Serling to come out, cigarette in hand, and give us the low-down on the meaning of Bojangles. But Bromberg will do for now.

Wilson’s Ma Rainey is a two-act play that takes place in a late 1920s recording studio in Chicago over the hours of one day. Act One features the boys in the band getting to know each other (for us), as they wait for the arrival of Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues, to begin jamming. Levee, the trumpeter is the dynamo in this act. In Act Two, Ma arrives and the dynamic changes dramatically, as she aggressively imposes her will on the band and the white studio engineers trying to make a buck off her music. This triadic dialectic is the key to understanding the motifs and themes of the play. The recently released film version, directed by George C. Wolfe (You’re Not You), stars Wilson veteran Viola Davis, who won a Tony for best actress in 2001 for her depiction of Rose in Wilson’s Fences. She teams up with Chadwick Boseman (Da 5 Bloods), whose restless energy is an excellent counterpoint to Ma’s authoritative control of the situation.

Wolfe leads into the action by flashing images of the South, from which the music we’ll hear in the studio derives. There’s Ma in a vaudeville tent onstage crooning to a sparse crowd of Negroes, black bottomed dancers wagging the junk in their trunks. It’s that 50-year transition period in the post-Reconstruction when Blacks became ex-slaves turned sharecroppers turned itinerant dream seekers. They can stay in the Jim Crow South or move and look for a better world on the roads North and West, where there was no slavery. But when Wolfe shows signs enticing Blacks to come North to fill the many service sector positions available (dishwashers, waiters, busboys), an appropriate funk sets in. Ma Rainey brings her blues North to make records with white folk who only want to exploit her ‘songs of experience’ for money. Images of Chicago in the late 20s. Then, essentially, it’s on to August Wilson’s play, his crisp, charged dialogue, telling the story, providing the energy — along with Ma’s deep black bottom blues.

Levee is a brash trumpeter, who composes and insists he’ll have his own band soon. Wilson might have been referencing Thad Jones, brother of the great drummer, Elvin Jones, who played in John Coltrane’s band on A Love Supreme. Levee wants to move a new sound — not “this old jug-band shit.” When he arrives, a bit late, he brings a pair of flashy new shoes he dances around in. The aging Cutler (trombone), Toledo (piano) and Slow Drag (bass) are content to be session men, earning cash for keep, cheap drink and willing women. Levee’s not all talk, Sturdyvant, the more cantankerous of the two engineers, wants to record Levee’s music and even feature his arrangements on “Moonshine Blues” (without asking Ma).

The band tolerate Levee’s brashness, but don’t think he knows how to deal with white people. But Levee’s not just pushy, and his past hurts strike chords with his mates as they listen to a seething Levee explain past encounters with whites, including the rape and murder of his mother by 8 or 9 men, and what happened when he tried to stop them: Levee gets slashed across the chest (he shows them the ugly scar). He explains,

My daddy went and smiled in the face of one of them crackers who had been with my mama. Smiled in his face and sold him our land…He got us settled in and he took off one day…He sneaked back, hiding up in the woods, laying to get them eight or nine men. (Pauses.) He got four of them before they got him.

His tale is poignant, but worrisome to the others, as it suggests a dissembling Uncle Tom filled with rage. Boseman does an excellent job with Levee’s complex character whose brilliant musical sublimations seem to denote primal rage.

And Viola Davis’s Ma Rainey is sublime; she’s true to the “real” Ma Rainey; and, she really gets August Wilson’s sense of cultural tragedy; of living two lives simultaneously — essence before existence and, l’existence précède l’essence, like some Franz Fanon Frankenstein monster who also plays slide. Trombone. Davis supplies her Tony Award-winning depth to Ma in her receding years, the glory going, little signs seem to indicate. The whiteys want to put new rhythms into her songs — juice them up with the new hep — without her okay. References are made to doing a cover of a song Bessie Smith made famous, forcing Ma to rebuke the reference, reminding us that Bessie was a 14 year old girl who signed to work with Ma Rainey down South.

Though Irv and Studyvant work Ma like a good-engineer-bad-engineer team — Irv keeping Ma in Cokes to keep in in-session, Studyvant is clearly unhappy with Ma’s attitude, her diva approach and ouchy sassiness. There’s no play in his clay. Ma’s got them figured though. She tells Cutler:

They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice…They ain’t got what they wanted yet. As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on. Ain’t got no use for me then. I know what I’m talking about.

She finagles as she can — “Get me a Coke!” — or having her stuttering nephew, Sylvester, do take after expensive take, wasting platters, for a tiny intro bit that she forces management to pay full share for.

She knows that time is not on her side, and she sometimes yearns to return South, where the white man may be evil but he doesn’t hide it behind duplicity and disingenuous empathy for plights he could never understand, like up North, which, as far as she’s concerned, was in no hurry to fight the Civil War to free slaves. It took the nation’s first-ever draft to force Northerners to fight (ironically by a form of slavery) the South in sufficient numbers or the War would have ended otherwise. Even Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves, was nothing more than an executive order — fully reversible, without Constitutional redress, by future presidents.

Music is everything to Ma and the band. This needful understanding of music is poignantly expressed by Ma in a conversation with Cutler and Toledo:

MA RAINEY White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.


MA RAINEY The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world. Something’s been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and try to fill it up with something.

TOLEDO You fill it up with something the people can’t be without, Ma. That’s why they call you the Mother of the Blues. You fill up that emptiness in a way ain’t nobody ever thought of doing before. And now they can’t be without it.

Toledo ain’t just genuflecting. Ma’s black bottom has spread far and wide, like a full moon over Paris, negativized.

The American Black experience has been a largely tragic train ride through history. Four hundred years in a white-managed colony serving as slaves, begrudgingly offered protection by the Constitution (where they were seen initially as ⅗ of a man), and still, today, needing to fight for enfranchisement at the polls and the institutions of justice and education. One thinks of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music. Scholar Lewis R. Gordon cites an interesting connection to Nietzsche’s concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian in the African-American experience. Gordon observes,

From modern technological achievements to the world of twentieth-century art, the role of whiteness has been consistently articulated by its major proponents as that of domestication of once chaotic forces…In contrast, African Americans have been consigned the Dionysian world of debauchery, passion, ecstasy; intoxication; sex; and music.

This is seen best in the extreme — say between protectors of the Canon versus waggling Black Eyed Peas.

In his discussion, Gordon makes a convincing case for how “whiteness” and “blackness” are forms of the Hegelian master-slave struggle in the ontological sense. Strictly speaking, they are never fully isolated in the American experience but conjoined as a cultural nexus that is both abyss and Sun. Gordon sees their momentary synthesis in song:

The realm of music affords many manifestations of such insight. Perhaps the best fusions of the dual gods were such classic and broad-ranged performances as Billie Holiday’s performance of Lewis Allan’s “Strange Fruit” (1940), Max Roach’s and Abbey Lincoln’s protest album We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite (1958), Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971), and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1988), to name but a few.

Gordon’s argument is thorough and well worth a read, and it’s good to have on hand a Nietzschean approach to the Black experience as laid out in the essays that embody Critical Affinities: Nietzsche and African American Thought.

There is by now a great deal of scholarly work that has been produced to trace the roots and manifestations of the Black destiny in America. One aspect of Ma Rainey only lightly touched upon is her sexual proclivities. Certainly, Wolfe is aware of this scent of a woman aspect, as he introduces us to Ma’s clear relishing of the alluring Dussie Mae, who makes Ma atypically happy, and who dances for Ma, gets a love-slap from Ma on her junk-trunk early on. Ma herself exudes sexuality. As scholar Angela Y. Davis sees it, in Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism (1995) when singers like Ma Rainey

“preached about sexual love, they were articulating a collective experience of freedom, which, for many Black people, was the most powerful evidence that slavery no longer existed.”

From the gospel “hope” for freedom and “change,” sees liberation in the personal blues of Blacks.

And Black women especially were doubly liberated. Davis continues,

Moreover, direct sexual exploitation of African women by their white masters was a constant feature of slavery. What permanence in familial relationships the slaves did manage to construct was always subject to the whim of their masters and the potential profits to be reaped.

Black women were cotton pickers — and, against their will, factories for new slaves on the plantation, but they were not the owners of their means of production. No way, Ma was going to put up with any “shit” (her word) from the likes of Studyvant or Irv. (Get me a Coke!) While it’s not featured in the film, Ma’s incipient lesbianism is apparent, and would no doubt have been a marketable commodity to the LGBTQ community. It’s also another dynamic at play between Ma and Levee, her taking note of Levee’s eyes on Dussie, her sexual property, and may have figured into their spat toward the end.

In the end, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom moves into the terrain of tragedy. The trauma of internalized rage raises its ugly head, and even though it provides clinical “insight” into the insufferable nature of the African-American experience, there’s no relief, and even the great Ma Rainey is, in the end, reduced in Wolfe’s closing scene to a deeply moving and silent melancholy. It’s a genuine moment (the aforementioned affection for Dussie being the other) where she’s not fronting, not putting up resistance to the pressure of being Black in a white-owned world. As she rides off in a cab near the end of career, like a punch drunk boxer, Wolfe sticks in the final shiv — an image of an all-white band playing Levee’s tour de force composition, moving the music of the soul from the blues into R&B, for which Levee has been paid a pittance.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix and is a highly recommended film. Ma Rainey’s oeuvre is available on YouTube.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.