The True Story Behind ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

She was known as the “Mother of the Blues.” A brash, brilliant performer who captivated audiences with her moving voice and outsized personae. Ma Rainey influenced future legends like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, but it was her own struggle to remain true to herself as a Black artist during the early 20th century that became the inspiration for Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson’s play, the first of his works to be performed on Broadway

Wilson was inspired by a decade-long deep dive into the blues

Born in Pittsburgh in 1945 to a white father and African American mother, Wilson developed a love of literature at an early age but dropped out of high school and briefly served in the U.S. Army before returning to his native city at age 20. He struggled to get by as he began his writing career, supporting himself through menial jobs while also spending his free time in local bars and restaurants, observing the daily struggles, joys and lives of the Black neighbors that would become the focus of his life’s work.

Already deeply influenced by revolutionary Black activists and the works of Black writers like Amiri Baraka and James Baldwin, Wilson began what he described as a near-obsessive exploration into the history of the blues, wearing out records by artists like Bessie Smith and Rainey. As he later wrote, “There was a nobility to the lives of Blacks in America which I didn’t always see… After I discovered the blues, I began to look at the people in the [rooming] house a little differently than I had before. I began to see a value in their lives that I simply hadn’t seen before. I discovered a beauty and nobility in their struggle to survive.”

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