This Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom analysis contains spoilers. You can find our spoiler-free review here.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tells the story of a group of 1920s musicians, composites of session players at the time, waiting for “the Mother of the Blues” to bring her big voice to the big room at Hot Rhythm Recordings. “Ma” Rainey, positively channeled by Viola Davis in the film, owned the copyrights of her songs, some of which became blues standards. Her trumpet player, Levee, masterfully captured by Chadwick Boseman in his cinematic swan song, doesn’t catch that break. The young horn player spends a lot of his time finishing a song for the session producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). He’s promised a recording using his arrangement.
The delivery of that promise first comes as a devaluation. The producer pounces on Levee when he’s down. He’d just been fired by the First Lady of Blues herself, and Sturdyvant tells him the song’s not what he’s looking for, but he can give him five bucks for his troubles. As a matter of fact, he can dump all his troubles, and songs, on the table at Hot Rhythm Recordings for five dollars a pop.
That’s low, but Sturdyvant sinks deeper into the bait and switch. Not only does he offer Levee a pittance for brilliance, but he commits the ultimate musical sin: He sucks the soul out of it, just as plainly as the man at the Crossroads got Eliza Cotter’s soul in a story we heard in the practice room. Hot Rhythm Recordings whitewashed that song, turning it into a standard for white musicians to play. That’s worse than stepping on a man’s shoes, and people get knifed for that.
Did it happen? Yes, and probably with the same exact words used on the fictional Levee. It happened all the time, and worse. Cultural appropriation didn’t start with Iggy Azalea; it predates Led Zeppelin stealing Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love” for “Whole Lotta Love;” it was there before The Beatles apparently nicked the guitar lick from “Watch Your Step” by Bobby Parker for the riff on “I Feel Fine;” Chuck Berry had to sue to get credit for the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA,” an almost note-for-note copy of “Sweet Little Sixteen.” His name is on the song now. He might even have bought a swimming pool with the royalties.
Many of the songs of the Carter Family, country music pioneers during the 1930s, were written or collected by A.P. Carter’s side man, Black guitarist Lesley Riddle, who may have been paid, but didn’t get any copyrights.
One of the most known cases of devaluing the artist happened during the recording of the song “Hound Dog.” “Big Mama” Thornton only made $500 for recording the session, even though songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller penned it for her voice, and even though she originated the yells and screams which punctuated and expanded on the original tune’s structure. After the song went on to be a landmark of rock music, particularly due to Elvis Presley’s cover, $500 doesn’t seem like much.
“Hound Dog” is as influential and recognizable as Ma Rainey’s “See See Rider,” recorded at the dawn of the blues. The practice is still happening today. Strictly speaking, this article is cultural appropriation. It’s been rampant since the first kidnapped Africans arrived in chains on these shores.
The theft of Black intellectual property permeates the entire history of American culture. In the performing arts, the most flagrant example is often overlooked because it happened to coincide with the creation of blackface. But Thomas Dartmouth Rice didn’t just burn cork to darken his face when he became a minstrel singer and invented “Jim Crow” in 1832; he also never credited the older Black man he heard singing and claimed to steal the rhythm and tenor of. Frederick Douglass called blackface minstrels “the filthy scum of white society.”
White European music was all linear until the influence of African sonics. African American artists infused classical orchestral instruments with gospel harmonies, added hand claps to the rhythm sections, and the noise of natural life. Black music was syncopated, filled with call and response, and unafraid to include the distortion of performance to play a part in musical composition. Improvisation isn’t limited to notes which can be transcribed on a page; it is the squawk of a clarinet or saxophone, a growl in a voice, or the flutter of lips on a trumpet.
At the turn of the 20th century, “race” music was underground, and seen as sleazy and somehow sinful. But as Black slang, music, and dances became popular among rebellious young whites in the 1920s, the institutions followed. Between the 1920s and ‘40s, blues, jazz, and gospel recordings by Black artists got very little airplay on large radio stations. During the Depression, radio stations hired white artists to cover black songs on air. Black musicians were routinely underpaid by record companies for songs given to white musicians.
“America is caught up in this conversation about the past,” Ma Raney director George C. Wolfe tells Den of Geek. “How much are we going to own up to the past and how much has that past informing the present? … And so Levee is, more than any other character in the film, emblematic of the future. He is America; he is this talent, this promise of what could be, but he is haunted and damaged by the scars of the past.”
Ma Rainey was signed to Paramount Records, which the film depicts as Hot Rhythm Recordings, by Mayo “Ink” Williams. He earned his nickname because he was very good at getting African American musicians to sign recording contracts.
Williams was the first Black producer at a major record label. He was also one of the first African Americans to play pro football, and is the only person to be inducted into both the Blues Hall of Fame Blues and the National Football Hall of Fame. But even Williams was guilty of shortchanging artists. He used some of the same excuses as the producer in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom too. He’d tried running his own independent label, and supplemented his own salary at Paramount by padding his take when negotiating writing credits.
Williams probably saw this as how it fit into the overall score of things. He would go on to write or produce songs which ushered in rock and roll. He went to work for Decca Records in 1934 and worked with artists like Mahalia Jackson, Sleepy John Estes, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Louis Jordan. When Williams left Decca in 1946, he founded the Chicago, Southern, and Ebony record labels, and worked with artists like Muddy Waters.
The very first Black-owned and operated record company was Broome Special Phonograph Records, founded by George W. Broome in 1919. The label only put out 12 sides, and didn’t last very long. The Pace Phonograph Company was founded in December 1920 by Harry Herbert Pace, who collaborated on songs with W.C. Handy, and formed the Pace & Handy Music Company with him in Memphis in 1912. Handy’s 1914 song, “St. Louis Blues,” was the label’s first hit.
The company moved to New York and changed their name to Black Swan records. When the label did well, their publicity department was sure to let everyone know “every time you buy a Black Swan record, you buy the only record made by colored people.”
The record company was bought out in January 1924, by M.A. Supper, putting the race-record business in the hands of white-owned record companies. Supper changed the label’s name to Paramount Records.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom ends with a cheerful version of “Baby, Let Me Have It All,” sung by Clint Johnson. It is an adequate rendition, middle of the road, and perfectly suited for the mainstream audience of the time. We are left wondering how magnificent it could have sounded with Levee’s arrangement.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix now.
*Additional reporting by Don Kaye.