August Wilson was the blues,
and Ma Rainey was his muse
August Wilson, poet, playwright and Pittsburgher, wrote in the language of the blues. He learned it in his hardscrabble youth spent in the Hill District, and he learned it from the recordings of artists such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the Mother of the Blues.
It was music that spoke to Wilson, seeping into his soul and pouring out again in his writing.
I think the blues are the best literature that blacks have. It is an expression of our people and our response to the world. I don’t write about the blues; I’m not influenced by the blues. I am the blues.
August Wilson in Playbill, 1996
As filming begins in Pittsburgh on the Netflix movie adaptation of Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the late writer’s relationship with the blues is as relevant as it was for each revelatory release of his 10 plays. With nine set in Pittsburgh and one — “Ma Rainey” — set in Chicago, the works chronicle the 20th-century experience of African Americans in the lyrical prose that brought him two Pulitzer Prizes before his death in 2005, at age 60.
An essay Wilson wrote on “Ma Rainey,” included as a foreword in the Theatre Communications Group hardcover collection of his plays, is almost as riveting as the script. He describes in detail what life is like for the “sleepy-eyed Negroes” from the South Side of Chicago, people who come alive at night, filling bars and juke joints to listen and move to music.
“Suffice it to say,” Wilson wrote, “that it is music that breathes and touches. That connects. That is in itself a way of being, separate and distinct from any other. The music is called the blues.”
The scene and the music may just as well have been conjured from the Hill District of his childhood — a lively, robust culture in a community that was considered “the crossroads of the world” for black Americans.
Ma Rainey — one of the very few real-life people Wilson ever put into his works — released the recording of the song “Black Bottom” in 1927, when Wilson’s play is set. But the roots of the blues are found in the songs and chants of enslaved black people.
As Harmony-based blues musician Eugene Morgan tells it, “The blues comes from the year 1619 in Jamestown, when the first slaves were brought here. They couldn’t play the drums and couldn’t speak their own language. What they had was the blues. It’s an expression; people who play the blues, they feel the blues.” Eugene Morgan’s story
George C. Wolfe is a Tony winner and director of the Denzel Washington-produced “Ma Rainey” movie. Seated on the North Side set last week, as an exterior scene was being readied, he talked about the blues and how deeply it is embedded in the America that Wilson put into words.
“There’s more accurate history to be found inside the blues than in most history books of the day,” Wolfe said. “They would write blues about a big flood that passed through, they would write blues about the Titanic, about the Lusitania, they would write blues about Jack Johnson. So the blues wasn’t just an expression of emotion. The blues was this incredible chronicle of history.”
Mark Clayton Southers, a Wilson disciple, has directed four theatrical productions of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” twice for his Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, and two years ago, he led a student production at Pittsburgh CAPA.
“August’s style of writing traditional poetry aligned with the prose style of some of the great Irish poets drastically changed when he first heard a recording of blues artist Bessie Smith’s ‘Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine.’ After listening to it over and over again, he realized that he could write in the voice of African Americans, and it now felt right to him. He was struck by the blues and never looked back. He went on to write ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ and the rest is history,” Southers said.
In their book, “August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays,” Laurence Glasco and the Post-Gazette’s Christopher Rawson tell the story, related by Wilson, of that discovery of the blues: “He was known to haunt Pittsburgh resale shops for clothes, and all the while buying up old 78 rpm vinyl records. One day, he took home one with a typewritten label.” It was that Bessie Smith recording.
“I listened to the record 22 straight times. Just over and over,” Wilson said. “It was someone speaking directly to me.”
Bessie Smith was mentored by Rainey and became her friend and friendly rival, according to The New York Times, which posted an obituary of Rainey in June in honor of Pride month. Rainey (1882-1939), a gay black woman in a world of white managers and producers, was described as she was often pictured: “With a mouthful of gold teeth, richly dark skin and flashy jewelry dangling about her, Rainey cast a striking figure, with a ruggedly powerful voice and lavish stage presence to match.”
She is certainly all that in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Theresa Merritt played her in the original 1984 Broadway production, Whoopi Goldberg played her in the 2003 revival, and now Viola Davis, the Tony- and Oscar-winning star of “Fences,” takes on the role for the screen.
Wilson’s play, which takes place in a Chicago recording studio, portrays her as a force of nature — much to the annoyance of the musicians who have come to play at her recording session. The musicians and their struggles, more than Ma, are the focus of the play, but Wilson paints a fierce portrait of the uncompromising Ma, with her music as his guide.
“August Wilson spoke at length about how the blues became the bedrock of his work, how the lyrics were a testament to the resilience and nobility of black people,” said Janis Burley Wilson, CEO and president of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center.
Wilson’s connection to the blues is the inspiration for the center’s Highmark Blues & Heritage Festival, Sept. 28-30.
“As I curate this project,” Ms. Burley Wilson said, “I’m listening to voices, the blues — the artists that tell the most profound stories of pain, love … life.”
Sala Udin, the activist, politician and actor who worked with Wilson, said “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a perfect example of how blues music is fused to Wilson’s works.
“Ma says, ‘I don’t sing the blues to feel good. The blues is a way of understanding life.’ August’s plays are not just plays to make us laugh and feel good. They are a way of understanding life. The betrayal, the pain, the laughter, the joy — all parts of understanding life.”
Wilson wrote similar words about the blues in his notes about the play — Wilson’s second (“Jitney” came first) and the first of his American Century Cycle works to be produced on Broadway. It also follows the Oscar-nominated “Fences” as the second Denzel Washington-produced filmed-in-Pittsburgh screen adaptation of a Wilson play.
“Ma Rainey” not only stands alone as the only one of Wilson’s plays not set in the Hill District — it stands out as being set directly in the musical world that touches all of his works.
Pittsburgh blues musician Jimmy Adler of the Jimmy Adler Band teaches English at Pittsburgh CAPA, where Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” is part of his curriculum.
“I wish they’d teach him in all the schools,” he said.
A student of the blues, he noted that even the titles of some of Wilson’s 10 plays, “in my opinion are direct references to the blues.” As an example, he offers first “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
“Big Joe Turner was a real blues shouter who was born in 1911. He was a giant of the blues during the 1940s and ’50s,” Adler said.
It has been noted by Wilson biographers and scholars that the name is inspired by the 1978 Romare Bearden collage and painting “Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket (Pittsburgh Memories),” which references the real-life Joe Turney, who was responsible for escorting black prisoners from Memphis to the state penitentiary in Nashville but is said to have sold some prisoners to convict farms along the Mississippi River. Joe Turney was reworked as Joe Turner, for not only the singer but also the W.C. Handy song “Joe Turner’s Blues.”
“Two Trains Running” is the title of a Muddy Waters song and “thus, a tip of the hat to Muddy, who was arguably one of the inventors of electric blues,” Adler said.
When he teaches “The Piano Lesson,” Adler invites his friend and fellow blues musician Eugene Morgan to give his students a sample of the authentic sound of the blues that migrated to northern cities. Morgan, the son of Georgia sharecroppers, lives in Harmony and plays the blues with his band, the Nightcrawlers.
“Wilson’s ‘Piano Lesson’ has characters who are in Pittsburgh but used to live in Mississippi,” noted Adler. “Several of the characters spend time in Parchman Farm, [a notorious Mississippi prison] that is steeped in blues history and mythology, and they even sing songs at the kitchen table that harken back to their days on the Farm.”
The 67-year-old Morgan has known the blues since he “came out of the womb.” With a guitar or two at the ready, he can ease into the songs of blues greats such as Eddie James “Son” House Jr. and Robert Johnson at the drop of a name.
When told that August Wilson said of himself, “I am the blues,” the musician agreed.
“He is the blues,” Morgan said. “I sing a song, and just like that, it’s gone. He wrote words that live forever.”
A blues seminar
The blues. The truth. They’re the same to Eugene Morgan.
“I love the blues because the blues don’t lie to you,” said Morgan, a Harmony-based blues musician and historian. “The blues will make you cry before it lie.”
His explanations of the authentic blues, as the son of Georgia sharecroppers, sound like lyrics you may have heard, or perhaps wish you had heard, at particular moments in your life.
Morgan, 67, a concert and recording artist, is retired from his day job in Callery, making batter for Eat’n Park Smiley cookies. These days, he and his band, the Nightcrawlers, play mostly local benefits. He said yes to an invitation to school the uninitiated on the blues, as a primer for the upcoming movie of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is filming in Pittsburgh.
He has done this before for Pittsburgh CAPA students at the behest of his friend and fellow musician Jimmy Adler, who teaches Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” to his CAPA English class.
Morgan migrated north with his mother and stepfather when he was 9½ and brought the blues with him. The music he learned as a boy was the cornerstone of his culture, he said.
“My mom picked beans and hoed rows of whatever they had going on, and a lot of times the ladies out in the field would sing gospel and blues songs about what’s going on in their lives,” he recalled. “When that hit me, that this is reality, then I knew that’s where I should be, in the blues, because that’s where I could tell my story and learn about the stories before me.”
Most people identify Chicago, where “Ma Rainey” takes place, and St. Louis as the cities that became home to the blues.
“[But] it was anywhere there was oppression,” Morgan said, noting that early blues recordings were distributed as “race records.” To him, you can’t talk about the blues as just music. “It’s a serious thing because it contains my history.”
When Morgan and his family arrived in Butler County, they were hit with a combination of culture shock and the realization that not much had changed from the segregationist South. Nearly 60 years after he settled in here, on a sweltering July day, he was seated on the patio of his trailer home in the green woods of Harmony. Morgan had his Revelator guitar in hand and another at the ready for a private blues seminar.
He used the former to play “John the Revelator,” a traditional gospel blues call-and-response song first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1930. It made its way to Eddie James “Son” House Jr., whom Morgan calls “The Godfather” and “the most important man in the blues in the ’40s,” because he mentored the next generation of blues musicians.
Morgan’s own style was greatly influenced by John Lee Hooker (1917-2001). “He got outside the box” and showed that “when we cry out, we all have a voice, whether you’re a writer, like August Wilson, or a performer,” Morgan said.
Listening to Hooker, Morgan learned to play a one-chord song, which he demonstrated while singing his own version of “The Motor City Is Burning”: “Police said a young boy went to the liquor store / Tried to rob it / They shot him down / People come out on the street, rioting / Burning the Motor City down to the ground …”
The song rings out like a diary entry of the traumatic event.
“It’s about being real,” Morgan said. “It’s not something dressed up to be something else. You tell your stories, you reveal your history, right there in the blues.”
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.