Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) – Transcript

During a recording session, tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable "Mother of the Blues".
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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)

In July 2, 1927, Ma Rainey is a highly regarded blues singer who has recently been contracted by white producers. A recording session for songs by Ma is scheduled by her manager Irvin to take place at Paramount recording studios in Chicago. Seasoned Georgia Jazz Band members Toledo, Cutler, and Slow Drag arrive on time without Ma, frustrating her producer Mel Sturdyvant. They are soon joined by Levee Green, the band’s overconfident trumpeter who has shown Sturdyvant his original compositions in the hopes of breaking away from Ma and getting his own record deal. The rest of the band disapproves of this.

Ma arrives an hour late with her girlfriend Dussie Mae and her nephew Sylvester. Ma immediately forces Sturdyvant to have the opening words of the album be spoken by Sylvester, who has a blocking stutter. As a result, the group has to do multiple takes of the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” much to the band’s frustration.

Ma interrupts the session after Irvin fails to bring her Coca-Cola, forcing Slow Drag and Sylvester to get her one. Ma complains to Cutler that her white bosses do not care for her as a person in part because of her race, and he agrees; she tells him that she does not want to be bossed around for her own art and should be allowed to do what she pleases. Meanwhile, Levee and Dussie Mae have sex in the practice room.

The group finally manages to go through a full session, but discover an equipment failure has caused it not to be recorded. The band blames Levee, who they think tripped over a wire while eyeing Dussie. Their argument leads to the religious Cutler talking about how a preacher he once knew was forced to dance for some white men and tear up his Bible while waiting for his train. Levee brushes off the story, saying that if there was a God, he would care for black people, which he never has. Cutler attacks Levee in anger, leading Levee to briefly brandish a knife in retaliation.

The group finally finishes recording, but Ma fires Levee soon afterwards, believing his ambition to be detrimental to the band. Levee then meets with Sturdyvant about his original songs, but discovers that he will only purchase the songs, believing them to not be suited for a black singer. Levee suffers a mental breakdown, and after Toledo accidentally steps on his new shoes, Levee fatally stabs him in the back with the knife. Cutler and Slow Drag leave in horror as a regretful Levee cradles Toledo’s corpse. Later, Sturdyvant records Levee’s songs with a band consisting entirely of white men.

* * *

[crickets chirping]

[birds hooting]

[running footsteps]

[panting]

[dogs barking]

[distant singing]

[panting heavily]

[people speaking indistinctly]

[laughs]

[singing continues]

♪ My bell rang this morning ♪

♪ Didn’t know which way to go ♪

[crowd cheering]

♪ My bell rang this morning ♪

♪ Didn’t know which way to go ♪

[woman] Yeah, Ma!

[crowd cheering]

[man] Yeah, baby!

♪ I had the blues so bad ♪

♪ I sat down on my floor ♪

[loud cheering]

♪ Daddy, Daddy ♪

♪ Please come home to me ♪

[cheering]

[crowd clapping in rhythm]

♪ Daddy, Daddy ♪

♪ Please come home to me ♪

[cheering]

♪ I’m on my way ♪

♪ Crazy as I can be ♪

[crowd cheering]

♪ Oooh… ♪

♪ Hmm… ♪

♪ Hmm… ♪

[Ma Rainey vocalizing]

[crowd cheering]

♪ Ah! ♪

♪ Daddy, Daddy ♪

♪ Please come home to me ♪

[loud cheering]

♪ Daddy, Daddy ♪

♪ Please come home to me ♪

♪ I’m on my way ♪

♪ Crazy as I can be ♪

♪ Hey ♪

♪ Hey, Daddy ♪

♪ Please come home to me ♪

♪ Hey ♪

♪ Oh, yeah! ♪

♪ I’m on my way ♪

♪ Crazy as I can be ♪

[crowd cheering loudly]

[rumbling]

[hammering]

[horn honking]

[upbeat jazz music playing]

[horns honking]

[mechanical whirring]

Testing, testing, one, two, three.

Testing, one, two, three.

Testing, testing, one, two…

Got that list?

Uh, I got it. Don’t worry about it.

I’m holding you responsible. You keep her in line.

I’m not putting up with any shenanigans. You hear, Irv? Irv?

[lively piano music playing]

Irv?

Irv!

Not putting up with any Royal Highness, Queen of the Blues bullshit.

Mother of the Blues, Mel. Mother of the Blues.

[upbeat jazz music playing]

Heh. You should’ve heard Levee at the club last night, Toledo.

Trying to talk to that gal Ma had with her.

You ain’t got to tell me. I know how Levee do.

Levee tried talking to her and got his feelings hurt.

I want you to get her in here, record those songs on that list, and get her out.

Just like clockwork.

[doorbell buzzes]

Like clockwork, Mel.

And that horn player, the one who gave me those songs, is he going to be here today?

I want to hear more of that sound.

How you boys doing, Cutler?

[Cutler] Fine, Mr. Irvin.

Where’s Ma? She with ya?

I don’t know.

She told us to be here at 1:00. That’s all I know.

Where’s the, uh, horn player?

Levee’s supposed to be here same as we is. I reckon he’ll be here in a minute.

[upbeat jazz music playing]

[horn honking]

Hey, hey, hey. Good morning, Chicago.

[both chuckling]

[woman] He ain’t from ’round here now.

[tires screech, horn honks]

Come on in. I’ll get you fed and ready to make some music.

[Cutler] Right.

Right down the hall.

Where’s Ma? How come she isn’t with the band?

Everything’s under control, Mel. I got everything under control.

Cutler, here’s the list of songs we’re going to record.

[chuckles]

[Mel] Why isn’t she here? And where’s that horn player?

What we got there, Toledo?

Eh, we got, uh…

Mmm. “Prove It on Me,” “Hear Me Talking to You,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Moonshine Blues.”

Oh. Them ain’t the songs Ma told me.

I wouldn’t worry about it if I was you. Ma’ll get it straightened out.

[Cutler] “Moonshine Blues.”

That’s one of them songs Bessie Smith sang, I believes.

Eh, Slow Drag’s right. I wouldn’t worry about it.

Levee know what time he’s supposed to be here?

Levee left the hotel talking about he was gonna buy shoes.

Says it’s the first time he beat you shooting craps.

[all laughing]

I ain’t thinking about no four dollars.

[Slow Drag] Levee sure was.

[Toledo] Let me get a hit of that.

[Slow Drag] That four dollars liked to burn a hole in his pocket.

He’s supposed to be here at 1:00.

That’s some good Chicago bourbon.

[Levee] Look here, Cutler!

[in sing-song] I got me some shoes.

[Slow Drag] Ooh!

N*gga, I ain’t studying you.

[Toledo] How much you pay for something like that, Levee?

Eleven dollars. Four dollars of it belong to Cutler.

Ooh! Levee say if it wasn’t for Cutler, he wouldn’t have no new shoes.

I ain’t thinking about Levee or his shoes.

[laughing]

[Cutler] Let’s get ready to rehearse.

[Slow Drag] I’m with you on that score. Don’t want to be here all night.

[Toledo] Ain’t but four songs on the list.

Last time there was six songs.

Yeah. Now I’m ready.

I can play some good music now.

[upright bass playing]

Damn! They done changed things around.

Don’t never leave well enough alone.

Yeah, everything changing all the time. Even the air you breathing change.

Yeah, you got, uh, monoxide, hydrogen, changing all the time.

Skin changing. Different molecules. Everything.

N*gga, what is you talking about?

I’m talking about the room, I ain’t talking about no skin and air.

I’m talking about something I can see. I ain’t talking about no molecules.

I know what you talking about. You don’t know what I’m talking about.

That door. You see that door? That’s what I’m talking about.

Door wasn’t there before.

You wouldn’t know your right from left. And damn if that door wasn’t there.

If you talking about they done switched rooms, you right.

But don’t go telling me that door wasn’t there.

Damn the door and let’s do this. I want to get out of here.

Toledo started all that about the door. I’m just saying that things change.

What you think I was saying? Things change. The air and everything.

Now you gonna say you was saying it.

You gonna fit two propositions on the same track, run them into each other, and ’cause they crash, you gonna say it’s the same train?

Now this n*gga talking about trains.

[Cutler laughs]

We done went from the air to the skin to the door and now trains.

Toledo, I’d just like to be inside your head for five minutes just to see how you think.

You done got more shit piled up and mixed up in there than the devil got sinners.

[laughing]

You been reading too many goddamn books.

What you care about how much I read?

I’m gonna ignore you ’cause you’re ignorant.

Let’s rehearse the music.

All right.

You ain’t gotta rehearse that.

Ain’t nothing but old jug-band music.

They need one of them jug bands for this.

Don’t make no difference to me, long as we get paid.

That ain’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about art.

What’s drawing got to do with it?

Where you get this n*gga from, Cutler?

He sound like one of them Alabama n*ggas.

It’s Slow Drag, all right.

Just play the piece, n*gga.

If you want to be one of them, uh, what you call virtuosos or something, you’re in the wrong place.

You ain’t no King Oliver or Buddy Bolden.

You’re just an old trumpet player come a dime a dozen.

Talking about art.

What is you? I don’t see your name in lights.

I just play the piece. Whatever they want. I don’t criticize other people’s music.

I ain’t like you, Cutler. I got talent.

Oh, shit.

Ooh.

Me and this horn, we’s tight.

If my daddy had a knowed I was gonna turn out like this, he woulda named me Gabriel.

[all] Oh!

I’m gonna get me a band and make me some records.

I done give Mr. Sturdyvant some of my songs I wrote, and he say he gonna let me record them when I get my band together.

I just gotta finish the last part of this song.

I knows how to play real music, not this old jug-band shit.

I got style.

Oh, everybody got style.

Style ain’t nothing but keeping the same idea from beginning to end.

Everybody got it.

Everybody can’t play like I do.

Everybody can’t have their own band.

Until you get your own band where you can play what you want, play the piece and stop complaining.

I told you when you came on here, this ain’t none of them hot bands.

This is an accompaniment band. You play Ma’s music when you’re here.

I got sense enough to know that.

I could look at y’all and see what kind of band it is.

I could look at Toledo and see what kind of band it is.

Oh, now Toledo ain’t said nothing to you. Don’t get Toledo started now.

Is you all gonna rehearse the music or ain’t you?

How many times you done play them songs?

What you gotta rehearse for?

This a recording session.

I want to get it right the first time and get on out of here.

Well, y’all go on and rehearse, then.

I’m going to finish this song for Mr. Sturdyvant.

[hums]

Levee, I don’t want no shit. You rehearse like everybody else.

You in the band just like everybody else.

Mr. Sturdyvant gonna have to wait. It’s the band’s time.

I’m ready if you want to rehearse. I said there ain’t no point in it.

Ma ain’t here. What’s the point?

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” One, two, you know what to do.

[horns honking]

[blues music playing]

No, no, no. No, no. We ain’t doing it that way.

We doing my version. That’s what Mr. Irvin told me.

Say it’s on the list he gave.

Let me worry about what’s on the list.

What sense it make to rehearse the wrong version?

You supposed to rehearse what you gonna play.

That’s the way they taught me.

That’s what I’m trying to say.

You trying to tell me what we is and ain’t gonna play, and that ain’t none of your business.

Your business is to play what I say.

Oh. I see now.

You done got jealous ’cause Mr. Irvin using my version.

[scoffs] What I got to be jealous of you about?

The day I get jealous of you, I may as well lay down and die.

Levee started all that ’cause he too lazy to rehearse.

Where’s the paper? Look at the paper. See what it say.

Gonna tell me I’m too lazy to rehearse.

[Cutler] We ain’t talking about the paper.

We talking about you understanding where you fit in here.

You play what I say.

I don’t care what you play.

Mr. Irvin gonna straighten it up. I don’t care what you play.

You boys know what’s keeping Ma?

Uh…

Can’t say, Mr. Irvin. She’ll be along directly, I reckon.

Well, you go ahead.

Mr. Irvin… [chuckles] About these songs…

Whatever’s on the list.

I’m talking about this “Black Bottom.”

It’s on the list.

Yes, sir, I know it’s on the list.

But I just want to know which version. We got two versions of that song.

Oh, Levee’s version. We’re using Levee’s arrangement.

[Cutler] Okay, got that straight. Now about this “Moonshine Blues.”

Yeah, we’ll work it out with Ma, Cutler.

You boys just rehearse whatever’s on that list.

See, I told you!

It don’t mean nothing when I say it. You got to wait for Mr. Irvin to say it.

I told you the way it is.

The sooner you understand it ain’t what you say, or what Mr. Irvin say, it’s what Ma say that count.

I don’t care what you play. Don’t matter to me.

Mr. Irvin gonna straighten it up. I don’t care what you play.

Thank you. All right, let’s, uh, play this “Hear Me Talking to You” till we figure out what’s going on with this “Black Bottom.”

One, two, you know what to do.

[piano music playing]

[blues music playing]

Don’t nobody say when it comes to Ma. She gonna do what she wanna do.

Mr. Irvin the one putting out the record.

He gonna put out what she want him to put out.

Levee confused about who the boss is. He don’t know Ma’s the boss.

You know how many records she sold in New York?

And you know what’s in New York? Harlem. Harlem’s in New York.

[Slow Drag] So what if they didn’t sell in New York?

We packed them in in Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta.

We ain’t in Memphis. We in Chicago. We in a recording session.

Mr. Sturdyvant and Mr. Irvin say what’s gonna be here.

[blues music continues]

You heard what the man told you.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Levee’s arrangement.

There you go. That’s what he told you.

I don’t know why y’all want to pick with me about it.

I’m with Slow Drag. Let’s go and get it rehearsed.

All right, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Levee’s version.

[Toledo] How that first part go again there, Lev?

It go like this.

[playing lively tune on trumpet]

That’s to get the people’s attention.

That’s when you and Slow Drag come in with the rhythm, me and Cutler play on the breaks.

The man asked how the part go. Ain’t ask for all that.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

One, two, you know what to do.

Hey, hey, hey. Y’all gotta keep up now. You playing in the wrong time.

Will you let us play this song? We been playing before you was born.

Trying to tell us how to play.

All right. Let’s try again.

Wait a minute. Let me fix this.

This string starting to unravel, and you know I want to play Levee’s music right.

If you was any kind of musician, you’d take care of your instrument.

Keep it in tip-top order.

If you was any kind of musician, I’d let you be in my band.

Shit.

Damn!

Slow Drag, watch them big-ass shoes you got.

Ain’t nobody done nothing to you.

You done stepped on my shoes.

Then move them out the way.

You was in my way. I wasn’t in your way.

Any man who takes a whole week’s pay and puts it on some shoes, understand what I mean, what you walk around on the ground with, is a fool.

And I don’t mind telling him.

What difference it make to you?

Ain’t nothing wrong with having nice shoes.

Look at Toledo.

[Levee] Ooh!

[all laughing]

What?

What was that about Toledo?

N*gga got them clodhoppers. Old brogans.

He ain’t nothing but a sharecropper.

Hey, Slow Drag.

Play something for me.

[playing upbeat tune]

A man gotta have some shoes to dance like this.

He can’t dance like this with them clodhoppers Toledo got.

That’s the trouble with colored folks, always looking to have a good time.

More n*ggas have got killed trying to have a good time than God got ways to count.

♪ When the world goes wrong And I got the blues ♪

What the hell having a good time mean? That’s what I want to know.

Got to be more to life than just having a good time.

If there ain’t, then this is a piss-poor life we’re living if that’s all there is to be got out of it.

N*ggas been having a good time before you was born,

and they gonna keep having a good time after you gone.

Nobody talking about making the lot for the colored man better for him here in America.

Ain’t nobody thinking about what kind of life, the world they gonna leave for the young’uns.

It’s just, “Show me a good time. That’s all I want.”

Aw. It just makes me sick.

Good times is what makes life worth living.

Uh-huh.

Hey, I know how to have a good time as well as the next man.

Yeah.

I just said there’s got to be more to life than just having a good time.

I said, the colored man ought to be doing more than trying to have a good time all the time.

Well, what is you doing, n*gga?

You’re talking all them highfalutin ideas about making a better world for the colored man.

What is you doing to make it better?

You playing the music and looking for your next piece of pussy same as we is.

What is you doing?

It ain’t just me, fool. I said everybody.

You think I’m gonna solve the colored man’s problem all by myself?

I said “we.” You understand that?

We? That’s every living colored man in the world got to do his share, got to do his part.

I ain’t talking about what I’m gonna do or you gonna do, or Cutler, Slow Drag, anybody else.

I’m talking about what all of us gonna do together.

That’s what I’m talking about, n*gga.

Well, why ain’t you just say that then?

[Slow Drag laughing]

Toledo, I don’t know why you waste your time with this fool.

I ain’t gonna be too many more of your fools.

Ain’t nobody studying you.

All right, I ain’t nobody. Don’t pay me no mind.

Ain’t nobody but the devil.

There you go. That’s who I am.

I’m the devil. I ain’t nothing but the devil.

I know a man sold his soul to the devil.

[all groan]

Name of Eliza Cotter. Lived in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama.

[laughs]

Devil came by and he upped and sold him his soul.

N*gga, how you know this man done sold his soul to the devil?

You talking some old-woman foolishness.

Everybody know. It wasn’t no secret.

He went around working for the devil and everybody knowed it.

Carried him a bag. One of them carpet bags.

Folks say he carried the devil’s papers and whatnot where he put your fingerprint on the paper with blood.

Where he at now? That’s what I want to know.

He can have my whole handprint if he want to.

Showed up one day all fancied out in the finest clothes you ever seen on a colored man.

Pocketful of money, just living the life of a rich man.

Had him a string of women he run around with and throw his money away on.

One of the fellas of them gals he was messing with got fixed on him wrong and Eliza killed him.

And laughed about it.

Sheriff come and arrest him and let him go.

Trial come up. Judge cut him loose.

Cut him loose and give him a bottle of whiskey.

[Cutler whistles]

Folks ask what done happened to make him change, and he tell them straight-out he done sold his soul to the devil and asked them if they wanted to sell theirs, too, ’cause he could arrange it for them.

Hold on. What happened to this fella? That’s what I want to know.

Last I heard, he headed up north with that bag of his, handing out $100 bills on the spot

to whoever wanted to sign on with the devil.

Hmm. I sure wish I knew where he went.

He wouldn’t have to convince me long.

Hell, I’d even help him sign people up.

N*gga, God gonna strike you down with that blasphemy you talking.

Oh, shit. God don’t mean nothing to me.

Let him strike me. Here I am, standing right here.

What you talking about he gonna strike me?

Here I am. Let him strike me. I ain’t scared of him.

All right. You gonna be sorry.

You gonna fix yourself to have bad luck.

Ain’t nothing gonna work out for you.

Bad luck?

Yeah.

What I care about bad luck?

You talking simple.

I ain’t had nothing but bad luck all my life.

Couldn’t get no worse. What the hell I care about bad luck?

I eat it every day for breakfast.

You dumber than I thought you was, talking about bad luck.

All right, n*gga.

You’ll see. [chuckles]

Can’t tell a fool nothing.

You’ll see.

[horns honking]

Oh. There you go.

Over there.

Whoa!

[crashing]

[horns honking]

[man] What are you doing?

Cutler, your boys’ sandwiches are here.

Cutler?

[policeman] Lady…

[Ma Rainey] This is a brand new car.

Lady…

Ain’t had but a ding.

Okay, lady…

[Ma Rainey] What you gonna do?

Ma!

[policeman] I’m talking…

[Ma Rainey] I got eyes, you got eyes. What are you gonna do?

Listen to me…

What happened?

Tell this man who I am. Get him straight.

Tell this man who he’s messing with.

Officer, what’s the matter? What’s the problem?

When I walked up on the incident, this lady…

Sylvester wrecked Ma’s car.

I… I did not. The man hit me.

[policeman] You want it in a nutshell?

We got her charged with assault and battery.

Assault and what for what?

Sylvester was driving…

I can tell you what happened if you wanna know.

That’s my nephew. That’s Sylvester. He was driving my car…

We don’t know whose car it is.

That’s Ma’s car.

I bought and paid for that car.

That’s what you say. We gotta check it out.

What’s the problem?

I was calling the paddy wagon to haul them to the station, sort everything out.

She’s aggressive with the other driver…

He got ugly with me.

I don’t know why you tell that lie.

You let me tell the story?

Well, if you gonna tell it, tell it right.

Like I said, while I was waiting for the paddy wagon, I turn to hear this guy’s side of the story.

She won’t let him get a word in edgeways.

He steps in front of her to tell his version of things, she pushes him to the ground.

She ain’t hit him. He just fell.

If that don’t beat all to hell. I ain’t touched the man.

All right, Ma. Officer, can I speak to you for a minute?

I got things to do.

He bumped into me and fell down.

Flopping on the ground like a rag doll.

I ain’t touch the man.

[imperceptible]

[Irvin] All right, Ma.

Come on. Let’s go. Move it out.

I got it all taken care of.

Clear it out. Come on. Let’s go.

What’s going on? What did you do?

Sturdyvant, get on away from me.

That’s the last thing I need, to go through your shit.

[policeman] Everybody move along.

It’s not the place.

Here, Ma.

Let me take your things.

I don’t believe we’ve met.

Hi.

That’s my nephew Sylvester, and that there’s Dussie Mae.

Oh, hello.

[Ma Rainey] Everybody here?

They’re in the band room.

Ma, why don’t you sit and relax?

I ain’t for no sitting.

Where’s the bathroom?

Uh, down that hall.

Honey, call down there and see about my car. I need my car fixed today.

Why y’all keep it so hot in here?

Y’all want to make records, better get a fan on.

I got it, Ma. I’ll take care of everything.

[Mel] She’s late and already…

I talked to her last night. Got everything straight.

You stay out of the way. Let me handle it.

You handled it last time, remember?

She marches in like she owns the place, complains about the building being cold, trips over a mic wire, then threatens to sue me.

[playing piano]

[humming softly]

I ain’t never been in a recording studio.

Where the band at?

They off somewhere rehearsing.

Come over here and let me see that dress.

That dress look nice.

I’m gonna take you tomorrow to get you some things before I take you down to Memphis.

They got some clothes up here they ain’t got in Memphis.

I want you to look nice for me, hmm?

Mmm-hmm.

You gonna travel with the show, you gotta look nice.

I just need me some new shoes. These hurt my feet.

Oh, don’t you be messing around with no shoes that pinch your feet.

Ma knows something about bad feet. Mmm.

♪ Oh, Lord ♪

♪ These dogs of mine ♪

♪ They sure do hurt me ♪

♪ All the time ♪

♪ Reason why? ♪

♪ I don’t know ♪

[Dussie Mae chuckles]

♪ Lord, I beg to be excused ♪

[growling]

[both laugh]

[Ma Rainey] Okay.

Go on, get my slippers out my bag over yonder.

[plays notes on piano]

♪ I can’t wear me no sharp-toed shoes ♪

♪ I went for a walk ♪

♪ I stopped to talk ♪

♪ Oh, how my corns did bark ♪

[sighs] I just want some of them yellow ones.

About a half size bigger.

We’ll get you whatever you need. Sylvester too.

Sylvester, tuck your clothes in.

Straighten them up and look nice. Like a gentleman.

Look at Sylvester with that hat on.

[Ma Rainey] Take that hat off inside. Come over here and leave that piano.

[stammering] I ain’t doing nothing to the… piano. I’m… I… looking at it.

Baby, come over here and sit down. Come on.

Soon as Mr. Irvin come back, I’m gonna have him take you down, introduce you to the band.

Cutler gonna show you how your part go.

When you get your money, send some of it home to your mama.

Let her know you’re doing all right.

Okay.

Ma, I called down to the garage and checked on your car.

It’s just a scratch, and they’ll have it ready for you this afternoon.

They’ll send it over with one of their fellows.

Better have my car fixed right.

I ain’t going for that. Brand-new car. They better fix it like new.

[lively music playing faintly]

Irvin, what is that I hear?

I know they ain’t rehearsing Levee’s “Black Bottom.”

I know I ain’t hearing that.

Ma, it’s what I wanted to talk to you about.

Levee’s version, it really picks it up.

I ain’t studying Levee nothing. I know what he done to that song.

I don’t like to sing it that way. I’m doing it the old way.

That’s why I brought my nephew in here to do the voice intro.

That’s what people want now, Ma. They want something they can dance to.

Levee’s arrangement gives the people what they want.

It makes them excited, forget about their troubles.

I don’t care what you say, honey. Levee ain’t messing up my song.

If he got what the people want, let him take it somewhere else.

I’m singing Ma Rainey’s song, not Levee’s song.

Now that’s all there is to it.

Carry my nephew on down there. Introduce him to the band.

I promised my sister I’d look out for him,so he’s gonna do the voice intro to the song my way.

[Irvin] We just figured…

Who’s this “we”? What you mean “we”? Come talking this “we” stuff. Who “we”?

Me and Sturdyvant. We decided…

You decided, huh? I’m just a bump on a log.

I’m just gonna go whichever way the river drift.

Is that it? You and Sturdyvant decided?

No. We just thought…

I ain’t got no good sense.

I know nothing about music or what a good song is or what ain’t.

You know more about my fans than I do.

It’s not that. It’s more of what the people want.

Tell you something, Irvin, and you can go up there and you can tell Sturdyvant too.

What you all say don’t count with me, you understand?

Ma listen to her heart. Ma listen to the voice inside her.

That’s what count with Ma.

Carry my nephew on down there.

Tell Cutler he’ll do the voice intro to the “Black Bottom” song.

Levee ain’t messing up my song.

If that don’t set right with you and Sturdyvant, I can carry my black bottom on back down South to my tour, ’cause I don’t like it up here noways.

Okay, Ma.

I don’t care.

I just thought…

Damn what you thought!

What you look like trying to tell me how to sing my song.

That Levee and Sturdyvant shit, I ain’t going for it.

Sylvester, go introduce yourself. I’m through playing with Irvin.

Uh… Where I go? Which way they at?

Come on. I’ll carry you down there myself.

Can I go? I want to see the band.

No. Come on, Sylvester.

Okay, Ma. Have it your way, but we’ll be ready to go in 15 minutes.

We’ll be ready to go when Madam says so.

That’s the way it go around here.

Perfect.

[upbeat music playing]

Cutler, this here my nephew Sylvester.

He’ll do the voice intro on “Black Bottom” using the old version.

What? Mr. Irvin said we’re using my version.

I ain’t studying you or Mr. Irvin.

Cutler, get him straightened out on how to do his part.

I ain’t thinking about Levee.

These folks done messed with the wrong person.

Cutler gonna teach you how to do your part. Go ahead and get it straight.

Don’t worry about what nobody else say.

[Cutler laughing]

Hey, come on in, boy. I’m Cutler. [chuckles]

That’s Toledo, Levee, and Slow Drag over there.

Sylvester, huh?

Sylvester Brown.

I wrote a version of that song, what picks it up and sets it down in the people’s lap, and here she come talking this.

You don’t need that old circus bullshit. I know what I’m talking about.

You gonna mess up the song, Cutler, and you know it.

I ain’t gonna mess up nothing. Ma say…

I don’t care what Ma say!

I’m talking about what the intro gonna do to the song.

The peoples in the North ain’t gonna go for that old tent-show nonsense.

They wanna hear some music.

[Cutler] N*gga.

I done told you time and again. Ma say what to play, not you.

You ain’t here to be doing no creating. You play whatever Ma say.

I might not play nothing. I might just quit.

N*gga, don’t nobody care if you quit. Whose heart you gonna break?

Levee ain’t gonna quit.

He need to make money to keep him in shoe polish.

[scoffs]

[all laughing]

I done told y’all you don’t know me. You don’t know what I’ll do.

I don’t think nobody give a damn. Sylvester, look here.

The band plays the intro, and then you say, “All right, boys, you done seen the rest.”

“Now I’m gonna show you the best.”

“Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom.”

You got that? Heh. All right, let me hear you do it one time.

All right, boys, you done s… s… [stuttering]

…seen the rest.

[stammering]

Now I’m gonna show you the best.

Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black b… b… b…

[stuttering]

…bottom.

[scoffs] All right, Cutler. Let me see you fix that.

Straighten that out.

Slow Drag, whoo, you hear this shit?

How in the hell the boy gonna do the part if he can’t even talk?

[stuttering] Who… Who’s you to tell me what to do, n*gga?

This ain’t your band. Ma tell me to d… do it, I’mma do it.

So you can go to hell… n… n… n*gga.

[laughs]

[mockingly] B… Boy, ain’t nobody studying you. Cutler, go on and fix that.

You fix that and I’ll shine your shoes for you.

Go on and fix that one.

You say, uh, you Ma’s nephew?

Yeah, so what that mean?

Oh, I ain’t meant nothing. I was just asking.

Let’s rehearse so the boy can get it right.

I ain’t rehearsing nothing.

Just wait till I get my band together.

I’m gonna record that song and show you how it’s supposed to go.

We can do it without Levee. Sylvester, you remember your part?

Yeah, I… I remember pretty g… good.

Well, come on. Let’s do it then. All right?

[piano music playing]

Levee.

[footsteps approaching]

Good, you boys are rehearsing, I see.

Yessir, we rehearsing. We know them songs real good.

Good. Say, Levee, did you finish that song?

Yessir, Mr. Sturdyvant. I got it right here.

I wrote that other part just like you say. It go like…

♪ You can swing it You can bring it ♪

♪ You can dance at any hall ♪

♪ You can slide across the floor You’ll never have to stall ♪

♪ My jelly roll ♪

Then I wrote that part for the other people to dance,

like you say, for them to forget about their troubles.

Good. I’ll see about your songs as soon as I get the chance.

I’ll just take this.

Yessir, Mr. Sturdyvant.

Soon as you get the chance.

[all laughing]

[Cutler] You hear Levee? You hear this n*gga?

“Yessir, we’s rehearsing, boss.”

I heard him. Seen him too. Shuffling them feet.

[Toledo] Yeah, well, Levee can’t help it none.

He’s spooked up by the white man. Ain’t had time to study ’em.

I studies the white man, I got him studied good.

The first time one fixes on me wrong, I’m gonna show him just how much I study.

Come tell me I’m spooked up by the white man.

You let one mess with me, I’ll show you how spooked up I am.

The man come in here, call you a boy, tell you to get up off your ass and rehearse, and you ain’t had nothing to say except, “Yessir!”

[all laughing]

I can say “yessir” to whoever I please. What you got to do with it?

I know how to handle white folks. I been handling them for 32 years.

You gonna tell me how to do it?

Just ’cause I say “yessir,” don’t mean I’m spooked up by him.

I know what I’m doing. Let me handle him my way.

[Cutler] Well, go and handle it then.

Toledo, you always messing with somebody.

Always agitating somebody with that old philosophy bullshit.

You stay out of my way about what I do and say.

I’m my own person. Just let me alone.

All right, all right. Levee, you right. I apologize.

Ain’t none of my business you spooked up by the white man.

[all laughing]

See, that’s the shit I’m talking about.

Y’all back up and leave Levee alone.

Oh, come on, Levee. We was all just having fun.

Toledo ain’t said nothing about you he ain’t said about me.

You just taking it all wrong.

I ain’t meant nothing by it.

Levee got to be Levee!

He don’t need nobody messing with him about the white man!

‘Cause you don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know Levee.

You don’t know nothing about what kind of blood I got!

What kind of a heart I got beating here!

I was eight years old when a gang of white mans come into my daddy’s house and have to do with my mama any way they want.

We was living in Jefferson County, about eight miles outside of Natchez.

My daddy’s name was Memphis. Memphis Lee Green.

Had him near 50 acres of good farming land. I’m talking good land.

Grow anything you want.

He done gone off of shares and bought this land from Mr. Hallie’s widow woman after he done passed on.

Folks called him a uppity n*gger ’cause he done saved and borrowed to where he could buy this land and be independent.

It was coming on planting time, and my daddy went into Natchez to get him some seed and fertilizer.

Called me, say, “Levee, you the man of the house now.”

“Take care of your mama while I’m gone.”

I wasn’t but a little boy.

Eight years old.

My mama…

Was frying up some chicken when them mans come in the house.

Must have been eight or nine of ’em.

She’s standing there frying that chicken when them mans come and took a hold of her just like you take hold of a mule and make it do what you want.

There was my mama…

With a gang of white mans.

She tried to fight ’em off.

I could see where it wasn’t gonna do her any good.

I didn’t know what they was doing to her, but I figured whatever it was, they might as well do to me too.

My daddy had a knife he kept around there for hunting and working and whatnot.

And I knew where he kept it. I went and got it.

I’m gonna show you how spooked up I was by the white man.

I tried my damnedest to cut one of them’s throat.

I hit him on the shoulder.

He reached back, grabbed hold of that knife, and whacked me across the chest with it.

[sniffles]

That’s what made them stop.

They was scared I was gonna bleed to death.

My mama wrapped me in a blanket, carried me two miles down to the Furlow place and they drove me up to Doc Albans.

He was waiting on a calf to be born, and he say he ain’t had time to see me.

They carried me to Miss Etta, the midwife, and she fixed me up.

My daddy came back and acted like he done accepted the facts of what happened.

He got the names of them mans from Mama.

He found out who they was, and then we announced we was moving out that county.

We said goodbye to everybody, all the neighbors.

[breathes deeply]

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.

We moved over with relations in Caldwell.

He got us settled in, and then he took off one day. I ain’t never seen him since.

[chuckles sadly]

He sneaked back.

Hiding up in the woods, laying to get them eight or nine men.

He got four of them before they got him.

[chuckles]

[inhales deeply]

They tracked him down in the woods.

Caught up with him, hung him…

Set him afire.

My daddy wasn’t spooked up by the white man. No, sir.

And that taught me how to handle them.

I seen my daddy go up and grin in this cracker’s face.

[laughs scornfully]

Smile in his face and sell him his land.

All the while, he’s planning how he’s gonna get him and what he’s gonna do to him.

That taught me how to handle them.

So you all just back up and leave Levee alone about the white man.

I can smile and say “yessir” to whoever I please.

I got my time coming to me.

You all just leave Levee alone about the white man.

[Toledo] ♪ Everybody ♪

Everybody come from different places in Africa, right?

Different tribes and things.

Soon awhile they began to make one big stew.

You had your, uh, carrots and your peas, and your potatoes over here.

And over there, you had your meat and nuts, uh, okra, corn.

And you mix it up, cook it real good to where the flavors flow through.

And then you got one thing.

You got a stew.

Now you take and you eat that stew.

You take and you make your history with that stew.

But you look around and you see some carrots over there, and some peas over here.

And… that stew is still there.

Hmm. You done made your history and it’s still there.

You can’t eat it all. [laughs]

What you got?

You got some leftovers. That’s what it is.

[plays piano]

See, we’s the leftovers. The colored man, he is the leftovers. Huh.

[piano continues playing]

What’s the colored man gonna do with himself?

[sighs]

That’s what we’re waiting to find out.

But first he’s got to know that he’s a leftover.

[upbeat jazz music playing]

[Cutler] Mr. Irvin.

I ain’t got nothing to do with it, but…

The boy can’t do the part.

He stutters right through it every time.

It’s a whole different bottom, though. It’s a whole different style.

[Cutler] Relax and breathe, and everything’s gonna be all right.

I’m just gonna cue you in…

[Slow Drag] I know where the four is, man. Don’t got to tell me nothing.

[Cutler] You’re gonna smile and say the line. Then we gonna get goin’.

Cutler.

Ma’am?

[Slow Drag] I know it’s on the four…

Levee got his eyes in the wrong place. You better school him, Cutler.

Come on, Levee. Let’s get ready to play. Keep your mind on your work.

Okay, boys. Here we go. Here we go. Here we go.

“Moonshine Blues” first. “Moonshine Blues,” Ma.

I ain’t doing no moonshine nothing. I’m doing “Black Bottom” first.

Come on, Sylvester. Where’s Sylvester’s mic?

Irvin, get him a mic.

Uh… Ma, the boys say he can’t do it.

Who? Who say he can’t do it? What boys say he can’t do it?

The band, Ma. The boys in the band.

What band?

Band work for me.

[Irvin] He stutters, Ma. They say he stutters.

I don’t care if he do.

I promised the boy he could do the part, so he gonna do it.

And that’s all there is to it. He don’t stutter all the time.

Get a microphone down here for him.

We don’t have time. We can’t…

If you wanna make a record, find the time.

I ain’t playing with you. I could walk out of here right now.

Go back to my tour. I don’t need to go through all this.

Go get the boy a microphone.

Levee, I know you had something to do with this. Watch yourself.

It was Cutler.

It was you. You the only one… [stuttering]

The boy stutter. He can’t do the part.

Can or can’t, he gonna do it.

You ain’t got nothing to do with it.

I don’t care.

He can sing the whole song.

Well, all right. Thank you.

He’s only getting one chance. The cost of this…

Damn the cost. You always talking about the cost.

I make more money for this outfit than anybody else you got put together.

If he mess up, he’ll do it till he get it right.

Come on, baby. Come on. Come.

Stand right there. Hold your hands like I told you to. Okay. Come on.

All right. Don’t worry about messing up.

You mess up, we’ll do it till you get it right.

All right. Play it for him, Cutler.

All right.

One, two, you know what to do.

All right, boys, [stuttering] you done seen the best.

Now I’m gonna show you the rest.

Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her b… b… b…

Black b… bottom.

That’s real good, baby. You take your time. You’ll get it right.

[Irvin] Okay, Ma. We’re ready to go.

Where’s my Coke?

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” boys.

Where’s my Coke? I need a Coke. Hot as it is. Shit. I need a Coke.

What’s the matter, Ma?

Where’s my Coke? I need a cold Coca-Cola.

Uh, Ma, look… I forgot the Coke.

Let’s do it without it, huh? Just this one song. What say, boys?

Damn what the band say. You supposed to have my Coca-Cola. You knew that.

I ain’t doing nothing without my Coca-Cola.

Shit.

[Mel] Just a minute here, Ma.

You come in an hour late…

Get out my face. Irvin, I told you keep him away from me.

I’m tired of her nonsense. I’m not gonna put up with this.

Let me. Ma, listen.

I’ll call down to the deli and get you a Coke. But let’s get started.

Sylvester’s standing there ready to go, the band’s all set up.

Let’s do this one song.

Too cheap to buy me a Coca-Cola. I’ll buy my own.

Slow Drag, Sylvester. Go on, baby.

Get me three bottles of Coca-Cola, ice cold. Get y’all something too.

Keep the change.

Yes, ma’am.

Irvin, get away from me. Shit.

You can wait till I get my Coca-Cola. Ain’t gonna kill you.

Okay, Ma. Get your Coke.

Gentlemen, the band room.

Christ sakes, get your Coke.

Cutler.

Come here a minute. I need to talk to you.

[horns honking]

[bell dinging]

[indistinct chatter]

[chatter stops]

What’s all this shit about “the boys in the band said”?

I tells you what to do.

I says what the matter is with the band. I say who can and can’t do what.

We just say ’cause the boy stutter.

I know he stutters. Don’t you think I know?

This is what gonna help him.

We thought it’d be easier…

He gonna do the part. I don’t wanna hear any more of this shit about what the boys in the band says.

And I want you to find somebody to replace Levee when we get to Memphis.

Levee ain’t nothing but trouble.

Levee all right.

He plays good music when he puts his mind to it.

He know how to write music too.

I don’t care.

He ain’t nothing but bad news.

Find somebody else. He the ringtail leader.

I know it was his idea who to say who can do what.

Dussie Mae! Sit your ass down and stop flaunting yourself around.

I ain’t doing nothing.

Just go somewhere and stay out of the way.

[door shuts]

[humming]

♪ You can slide across the floor ♪

♪ You’ll never have to stall My jelly roll ♪

♪ Oh, my jelly roll My jelly roll ♪

Hi. I just wanted to see what it look like down here.

Well, come on in.

I don’t bite.

I didn’t know you could write music.

I just thought you was jiving me at the club last night.

No, baby. I knows how to write music.

I done give some of my songs to Mr. Sturdyvant.

He say he gonna let me record ’em.

I’m gonna have my own band.

Hey, Toledo. Ain’t I give Mr. Sturdyvant some of my songs I wrote?

Don’t get Toledo mixed up in nothing.

You gonna have your own band, sure enough?

Levee Green and his Footstompers.

[giggles]

A man what’s gonna get his own band need to have a woman like you.

A woman like me need a man to bring it and put it in my hand.

I don’t need nobody getting something for nothing and leave me standing in my door.

That ain’t Levee’s style, sugar. I knows how to treat a woman.

Buy her presents and things. Treat her like she want to be treated.

That’s what they all say till it come time to be buying the presents.

When we get down to Memphis, I’m gonna take you out, show you a good time.

Show you Levee know how to treat a woman.

Ma.

This “Moonshine Blues,” that’s one of them songs that Bessie Smith sangs, I believe.

Bessie what?

I ain’t thinking about Bessie.

Shit. I taught Bessie. Bessie ain’t doing nothing but imitating me.

What I care about Bessie? I don’t care if she sell a million record.

She got her people. I got mine. I don’t care what nobody else do.

Ma was the first. Don’t you forget it.

Nobody said nothing about all that.

I’m saying that’s the song she sang.

I’ve been doing this a long time.

Ever since I was a little girl. I don’t care what nobody else do.

Shoot. That’s what get me so mad with Irvin.

White folks try to be put out with you all the time.

Too cheap to buy you a damn Coca-Cola.

I lets them know it, though. Ma don’t stand for no shit.

Shoot.

They wanna take your voice and trap it in all them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials, and then too cheap to buy you a Coca-Cola.

Don’t cost but a nickel a bottle.

[door slams shut]

They don’t care nothing about me.

All they want is my voice.

Well, I done learned that.

And they gonna treat me the way I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt ’em.

They back there right now calling me all kinds of names.

Calling me everything but a child of God.

But they can’t do nothing else ’cause they ain’t got what they wanted yet.

As soon as they get my voice down on one them recording machines, then it’s just like I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.

They ain’t got no use for me then.

I know what I’m talking about. You watch.

And Irvin, he right there with the rest of them.

He don’t care nothing about me either.

He’s been my manager for six years, and the only time he had me over his house was to sing for some of his white friends.

Huh. I know how they do.

Yeah. Shit, you colored and you can make ’em some money, then you all right with them, otherwise you just a dog in the alley.

I done made them more money from my records than all them other recording artists they got put together, and then they wanna balk about how much this session is costing them.

I can’t see how it’s costing as much as they say.

Shit, it ain’t. I don’t pay that kind of talk no mind.

I already got my fellas picked out.

Mmm-hmm.

I’m getting me some good fellas. Know how to play real sweet music.

You get your own band, we’ll see about this stuff you talking.

I just wanna show you I knows what the womens like.

They don’t call me Sweet Lemonade for nothing.

Stop it now. Somebody gonna come in here.

No, they ain’t.

Look here, sugar.

What I wants to know is, can I introduce my red rooster to your brown hen.

You get your own band and we’ll see if your red rooster know how to crow.

[Dussie Mae giggling]

[Levee whoops]

[Levee moaning]

[Dussie Mae laughing]

[Levee] Mmm. Damn, baby.

Now I know why my grandpappy sat on the front porch with a straight razor when my grandma hung out the wash.

You crazy!

[Dussie Mae laughing]

[Levee] Whoo!

I bet you sound like the midnight train to Alabama when it crosses the Mason-Dixon Line.

[moans]

[Dussie Mae] How you get so crazy?

It’s women like you that drive me so…

Good God.

[laughing]

Happy birthday to the lady with the cakes.

[discordant notes play on piano]

[Dussie Mae moaning]

[both laugh]

Sure done got quiet in here.

I never could stand no silence.

I always got to have some music going on in my head somewhere.

It keeps things balanced.

Music will do that. It fills things up.

The more music you have in the world, the fuller it is.

I can agree with that. I got to have my music too.

White folk 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 that’s life’s way of talking.

You don’t sing to feel better.

You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.

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.

Mmm.

This be an empty world without the blues.

[both laugh]

Yeah.

I try to take that emptiness and fill it up with something.

Ooh! [chuckles]

I ain’t started blues way of singing. Blues always been there.

But if they wanna call me the Mother of Blues, that’s all right with me. It don’t hurt none.

[both laugh]

Sure did take y’all a long time. Sylvester, get Irvin.

Tell him we ready to go.

I’ll grab Levee.

[Dussie Mae moans]

[Levee exhales]

[Levee] Ah…

[knocking at door]

Ma got her Coke, Levee. We about ready to start.

[Levee whispers] Get this off me.

[Dussie Mae] Okay.

[Levee whispers] Okay, gotta go.

[Dussie Mae whispers] Just go!

[Ma Rainey sipping loudly]

Okay, boys. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” take one.

Two, you know what to do.

[blues music playing]

All right, boys, you… you… d… done…

Take two.

All right, boys, you done seen the rest. Now I’m gonna show you the best.

Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her… B… B… B…

Take…

[Ma Rainey] Hmm.

[sips loudly]

Ma, can we just do it without the…

Take six.

[yawns]

Take seven.

[blues music playing]

All right, boys,

you done seen the rest. Now I’m gonna show you the best.

Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom.

♪ Way down South in Alabamy ♪

♪ I got a friend they call Dancin’ Sammy ♪

♪ Who’s crazy About all the latest dances ♪

♪ Black bottom stomps And the new baby prances ♪

♪ The other night at a swell affair ♪

♪ Soon as the boys Found out that I was there ♪

♪ They said, “Come on, Ma Let’s go to the cabaret” ♪

♪ When I got there, they began to say ♪

♪ “I wanna see that dance They call the black bottom” ♪

♪ “I wanna learn that dance” ♪

♪ “Wanna see the dance They call your big black bottom” ♪

♪ It’ll put you in a trance ♪

♪ All the boys in the neighborhood ♪

♪ They say “Your black bottom is really good” ♪

♪ “Come on and show me Your black bottom” ♪

♪ “I wanna learn that dance” ♪

♪ I wanna see the dance They call the black bottom ♪

♪ I wanna learn that dance ♪

♪ Wanna see you do the dance You call your big black bottom ♪

♪ It’ll put you in a trance ♪

♪ Early one morning ‘Bout the break of day ♪

♪ Grandpa told Grandma, I heard him say ♪

♪ “Get on up and show your old man Your black bottom” ♪

♪ I wanna learn that dance Yes, sir ♪

♪ I wanna learn that dance ♪

Okay, that’s good, Ma. That sounded great. Good job, boys.

See? I told you you could do it!

[laughs]

[Cutler] He did good.

All you gotta do is set your mind to it.

He did better than I thought he would.

My baby.

Mwah. That’s my baby.

Hey, boy. Hey, boys, Ma.

Yeah!

Hey, let’s do “Moonshine Blues” next?

“Moonshine Blues,” boys.

Irv? Something happened with the recording. Check that mic.

One, one, one, two, check, one…

No. The problem’s with the kid’s mic.

Oh, Christ Almighty!

Ma, we didn’t record the song.

Shit!

What you mean you didn’t record the song?

What were you and Sturdyvant doing up there?

[Irvin] Levee must have kicked the plug out.

I ain’t kicked nothing.

If Levee had his mind on what he was doing.

If it ain’t one thing, it’s another. Straighten your black ass out.

Hell, it ain’t my fault. I ain’t done nothing.

It’s the cord, Mel.

The cord’s all chewed up. We need another cord.

The most disorganized…

[Irvin] Ma?

[Ma Rainey] Waste of my time.

Where’s she going?

Shit.

[Irvin] Ma? Ma!

Ma?

If you walk out of this studio, you’re through. You’re washed-up.

Christ sakes, Mel! Ma!

Ma, come back here! Ma, please!

Listen, Ma.

These records are gonna be hits.

They are gonna sell like crazy.

Hell, even Sylvester will be a star.

Fifteen minutes.

That is all I am asking, Ma. Just 15 minutes.

Fifteen minutes. You hear me, Irvin? Fifteen minutes.

Then I’m gonna carry my black bottom on back down to Georgia, you hear me?

Fifteen minutes. [scoffs]

[exhales] You boys go ahead and take a break.

Fifteen minutes. We’ll be ready to go.

Don’t make no difference to me if she leave.

I’m ready to get on outta here, anyway.

If I was Mr. Irvin, I’d go on and get them cords and things hooked up right.

If Levee kept his mind on his work, we wouldn’t be in this fix.

We’d be up there finishing up.

Now we gotta see if that boy can get that part right.

He got one eye on the gal and the other on his trumpet.

[Cutler] N*gga, don’t you know that’s Ma’s gal?

I ain’t done nothing to her. I just talk to her like I talk to anybody else.

Your ass gonna be out there scraping the concrete, lookin’ for a job, you keep messing around with her.

I ain’t done nothing to the gal. I just asked her her name.

If you sayin’ I can’t do that, Ma’ll just have to go to hell.

I’m through with it. [scoffs] Try talking to a fool.

Some mens got it worse than others. Some mens is excited to be a fool.

[chuckles]

I knows about it. The excitement is something else.

I done experienced it. Make you feel good to be a fool.

But it don’t last long.

Over in a minute, then you got to tend with the consequences.

That’s the best sense you made all day, talking about being a fool.

That’s the only sensible thing you said today, admitting you was a fool.

Oh, I admits it, all right. Ain’t nothing wrong with it.

I done been a little bit of everything. [chuckles]

Gonna be a bit more things before I’m finished with it.

But I ain’t never been the same fool twice.

That’s where we part ways.

But you been a fool. That’s what counts.

Talking about I’m a fool for asking the girl her name, and here you is one yourself.

I married a woman. A good woman.

To this day, I can’t say nothing bad about this woman.

I married her with all the good intentions and graces of being hooked up, bound to her for the rest of my life.

Looking for this woman to put me in my grave, but she went out and joined the church.

She got up there and got to seeing them good Christian men and wondering why I ain’t like that.

Soon she figured she hooked up to a heathen.

Couldn’t live like that.

So she left.

Hmm.

I just sat down and I figured I was a fool not to see that she needed something that I wasn’t giving her, else she wouldn’t have been up there at the church.

So, yeah…

Toledo been a fool about a woman.

That’s part of making life.

Toledo, what you call a fool and what I call a fool are two different things.

A fool is responsible for what happen to him.

A fool cause it to happen. Like Levee.

He keep messing around with Ma’s gal, his feet be out there scraping the ground.

That’s a fool.

Nothing gonna happen to Levee.

Levee ain’t gonna let nothing happen to him.

Better not let Ma see you ask her. That’s what the man’s trying to tell you.

I don’t need nobody to tell me nothing.

Toledo, all I’m saying is, from the looks of it, from your story, I don’t think life treated you fair.

Oh, life’s fair.

Life ain’t shit.

You can put it in a paper bag and carry it around with you.

It ain’t got no balls.

[door clangs]

Now death? Death got some style.

Death will kick your ass and make you wish you never been born.

That’s how bad death is.

But you can rule over life. Life ain’t nothing.

N*gga talking about life is fair and ain’t got a pot to piss in.

All right. Now I’m gonna tell you something.

A n*gga gonna be dissatisfied no matter what.

N*ggas got a right to be dissatisfied.

Is you gonna be satisfied with a bone somebody done throwed you when you done seen them eating a whole hog?

You lucky they let you be an entertainer. You’re lucky and don’t even know it.

I’m talking about being satisfied with a bone somebody done throwed you.

That’s what’s the matter with y’all, you’re satisfied sitting in one place.

Soon as I get my band together and record them songs Mr. Sturdyvant done told me I can make,

I’m gonna be like Ma and tell the white man just what he can do.

Ma tell Mr. Irvin she leaving?

Mr. Irvin get down on his knees and beg her to stay.

That’s the way I’m gonna be. Make the white man respect me.

The white man don’t care nothing about Ma.

The colored folks made Ma a star.

The white folks don’t care nothing about who she is or what kind of music she make.

Let her go to one of them white folks hotel and see how big she is.

[scoffs] Hell, she can’t even get a cab up here in the North.

I’mma tell you something. Reverend Gates.

Slow Drag, you know who I’m talking about. Reverend Gates.

Reverend Gates was, uh, coming up from Tallahassee to Atlanta to see his sister who was sick at that time with the consumption.

The train come up through Thomasville, then past Moultrie, and then ended up in this little town called Sigsbee.

You can stop telling that right there.

Ain’t but one train come out of Tallahassee headed north to Atlanta.

It don’t stop at Sigsbee.

The only train that stop at Sigsbee is the Santa Fe, and you gotta transfer at Moultrie to get it.

Maybe that’s what he done. I don’t know.

I’m just telling you he got off at Sigsbee.

You telling it. Tell it your way. Just make up anything.

Leave him alone and let him finish.

Go on, tell it your way.

Reverend Gates got off this train in Sigsbee.

Figured he’d check the schedule to make sure he arrived in time for somebody to pick him up. All right?

While he’s there, it come upon him that he had to go to the bathroom.

Now, the only colored restroom they had was an outhouse they had sitting way back, 200 yards or so from the train station.

While he’s in the outhouse, the train go off and leave without him.

Now, he don’t know where he is in this town.

In fact, he ain’t never heard of it before.

I heard of it, and he ain’t got off no train coming outta Tallahassee in Sigsbee.

The man’s standing there trying to figure out what he gonna do, where this train done left him in this strange town.

It started getting dark.

He sees where the sun’s getting low in the sky, and he’s trying to figure out what he gonna do, when he noticed a couple of white fellas standing across the street from the station.

Just standing there, watching him.

Then two or three more fellas come up and join the other one.

Now he look around the station. He don’t see no colored folks nowhere.

He don’t know what’s getting into these fellas’ minds, so he commence to walking.

He don’t know where he walking. He walking down the railroad tracks when he hear, “Hey, n*gger.”

Just like that.

“Hey, n*gger.”

He keep walking.

They call him some more. He kept walking.

Then he heard a gunshot. Yeah. He stopped then, you know.

They crowded around him.

He’s standing there, cross around his neck, and the little Bible that he keep with him all the time.

They ask who he was. He said he was Reverend Gates and he was on his way to see his sister who was sick, and the train went off and left him.

And they said, “Yeah, n*gger?”

“But can you dance?”

He looked at them and commenced to dancing.

One of them reached up and tore his cross off his neck, said he was committing heresy by dancing with a cross and a Bible.

Took his Bible and tore it up, and had him dancing till they got tired of watching him.

That’s the only way that man…

What I wants to know is, he a man of God.

Where the hell was God when all this was going on?

Why didn’t God strike down them crackers with some of this lightning you talking about to me?

Levee, you gonna burn in hell.

Why didn’t God strike some of them crackers down? Tell me that.

That’s the question. Don’t come telling me this burning-in-hell shit.

He a man of God, why didn’t God strike some of them crackers down?

I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you the truth.

God ain’t never listened to no n*gga’s prayers.

God take the n*gga’s prayers and throw them in the garbage.

God don’t pay n*ggas no mind. In fact, God hate n*ggas.

Hate them with all the fury in his heart.

Jesus don’t love you, n*gga. Jesus hate your black ass.

Come talking that shit to me. Talking about burning in hell.

God can kiss my ass.

[grunts]

You wanna blaspheme my God! That’s my God! My God, you worthless…

Let him go!

You worthless!

Let him go!

That’s my God! Blaspheme my God.

Let it go! It don’t mean nothing!

It don’t mean nothing!

It’s your God, huh? Is that right?

All right, I’m gonna give your God a chance.

I’m gonna give your God a chance.

I’m gonna give him a chance to save your black ass.

Put that knife up!

Stay out of this, Toledo.

That’s no way to solve nothing.

Put that knife up!

I’m talking to Cutler’s God! You hear me?

Cutler’s God! I’m calling Cutler’s God!

Come on and save this n*gga.

Strike me down before I cut his throat.

You gonna burn in hell, n*gga.

I’m calling your God.

I’m gonna give him a chance to save you. I’m calling your God!

Cutler’s God?

Come on and save this n*gga.

Come on and save him like you did my mama.

Save him like you did my mama!

I heard her when she call you.

I heard her when she said, “Lord have mercy. Jesus help me.”

“Please, God, have mercy on me, Lord. Jesus help me.”

Did you turn your back?

Did you turn your back, motherfucker?

Did you turn your back?

Come on.

Come on and turn your back on me.

Turn your back on me!

Come on. Where is you?

Come on and turn your back on me!

Turn your back on me, motherfucker! I’ll cut your heart out!

Come on. What’s the matter? Where is you?

Come on and turn your back on me.

Come on, what you scared of?

Turn your back on me! Come on!

[scoffs]

Coward motherfucker!

[panting]

Your God ain’t shit, Cutler.

Your God ain’t shit.

[exhales]

[panting]

[trumpet playing]

♪ Hello, central, give me 609 ♪

♪ What it takes to get it In these hips of mine ♪

♪ Oh, you’ll hear me talking to you ♪

♪ I don’t bite my tongue ♪

♪ You wanna be my man ♪

♪ You better bring it with you When you come ♪

♪ You wanna be my man ♪

♪ Bring it with you when you come ♪

Wonderful. We got that, boys.

Whoo-hoo!

Good session, Ma. We’ve got ourselves some winners!

Slow Drag, where you learn to play that bass at?

I heard it singing. I heard you.

You had that bass jumping all over the place.

I was following Toledo.

N*gga got them long fingers striding all over the piano.

I was trying to keep up with him.

That’s what you supposed to do.

Play the music.

Cutler, you hear Slow Drag on that bass spanking like you spank a baby?

[spanks]

Boom!

Levee, what were you doing? Why you playing all them notes?

Playing ten notes for every one you supposed to play. Don’t call for all that.

You’re supposed to improvise on the theme. That’s what I was doing.

You’re supposed to play the song like I sing it.

[chuckling] The way everybody else play it.

I was playing the song the way I felt it.

I’m trying to sing my song and you messing up my ear.

You call that playing music?

Hey, I know what I’m doing.

Y’all back up and leave me alone about my music.

I done told you it ain’t about your music. It’s about Ma’s music.

That’s all right. I told you what to do.

What I care about what you and Cutler do?

Y’all gonna fire me. I don’t care. I’ll go get my own band anyway.

You keep messing with me…

Nobody studying you.

All right, n*gga. You fired.

You think I care about being fired? I don’t care.

You doing me a favor.

Cutler, Levee’s out.

He ain’t playing in my band no more.

I’m fired? Good!

Best thing that ever happened to me.

I don’t need this shit.

[door slams shut]

[breathing heavily]

[door rattling]

[grunting]

[grunts]

Okay.

[grunting]

[breathes deeply]

[grunts]

[exhales]

[breathes heavily]

[upbeat jazz music playing]

Mel will be out with your money in a minute.

That’s cash money. I don’t want no check.

I’ll see what I can do. I can’t promise you nothing.

As long as it ain’t no check. I ain’t got no use for a check.

Listen, Ma. I talked to Sturdyvant, and he said…

Now I tried to talk him out of it, but he said the best he can do is take $25 of your money

and give it to Sylvester.

Take what and do what?

If I wanted the boy to have $25 of my money, I’d give it to him.

He’s supposed to have his own money.

He’s supposed to get paid like everybody else.

You go on up there, and you tell Sturdyvant that he better pay the boy his own money.

Yeah, I talked to him…

[Ma Rainey] Talk to him again.

Tell him if he don’t pay the boy his own money, he’ll never make another record of mine again. Tell him that.

You supposed to be my manager. Always talking about sticking together.

Start sticking.

Get the boy his money!

Okay.

I’ll see what I can do.

[door opens and shuts]

[breathing heavily]

[door opens]

Hey, Ma.

Is there something wrong?

Is there a problem?

I want you to pay the boy his money.

Sure, Ma. I got it right here.

It’s, uh, 200 for you and 25 for the kid, right?

Irvin misunderstood me.

It was all a mistake. It was all a mistake.

A mistake, huh?

Sure, Ma. Made a mistake.

But he’s paid, right?

The only mistake…

Was when you found out I hadn’t signed the release forms.

That was a mistake.

Come on. Sign the forms, huh?

Dussie Mae, Sylvester, come on.

Ma, sign the forms.

[Ma Rainey] Irvin, where’s my car?

It’s right out front. I got the keys right here.

Come on and sign these forms, huh?

[Irvin sighs]

Irvin, give me my keys.

Sure, Ma. Just… sign these forms.

Send them to my address. I’ll get around to ’em.

Come on, Ma. I took care of everything, didn’t I?

I straightened everything out.

Ma?

Please?

[man whistling]

And you tell Sturdyvant,

any more mistakes and I can make my records some place else.

[car starting]

[instrument clattering]

[Cutler] I ain’t gonna stand for it. Ain’t gonna bring me no check down here.

Man give me a check last time. What happened?

We had to go all over Chicago to get it cashed.

See a n*gga with a check, first thing they think is he stole it.

I ain’t had no trouble cashing mine.

I don’t visit no whore houses.

You don’t know my business, so don’t start nothing.

I’m tired of you as it is. I ain’t but two seconds off your ass, noway.

Don’t y’all start nothing now.

What the hell I care what you’re tired of? I wasn’t talking to you.

I was talking to this man.

Boys, I’ve got your pay.

Mr. Irvin told me you boys prefer cash, and that’s what I have for you.

That was a good session you boys put in.

There’s 25 for you.

Yes, sir, you boys really know your business. Twenty-five for you.

We’re gonna get you back in here real soon. Twenty-five.

And have another session, so you can make some more money.

And 25 for you.

[Levee] Uh, Mr. Sturdyvant, sir?

About them songs I give you?

Oh, yeah. Oh, Levee. Uh, I thought about it.

I don’t think that people will buy them.

They’re not the type of songs we’re looking for.

Mr. Sturdyvant, sir. I done already got my band picked out.

I got some real good fellas. They know how to play real good music.

I know if the peoples hear the music, they’ll buy it.

Uh, Levee, I’ll be fair with you. They’re not the right songs.

Mr. Sturdyvant, peoples is tired of hearing jug-band music.

The people in the big city? They want something with some fire to it.

Harlem, Detroit, DC.

Okay, I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you $5 apiece for ’em.

I don’t want $5, Mr. Sturdyvant. I wants to record them songs like you say.

Like I say, they’re not the kind of songs we’re looking for.

Mr. Sturdyvant, you asked me to write them songs.

Why didn’t you tell me that when I first give them to you?

You told me you was gonna let me record them.

What’s the difference between then and now?

I’ll pay you for your trouble.

What’s the difference?

That’s what I wanna know.

I had my fellas play your songs.

When I heard them, they didn’t sound like the kind I’m looking for right now.

You got to hear me play them.

You ain’t heard me play them. That’s what’s gonna make them sound right.

Levee, I don’t doubt that.

It’s just that, I don’t think they’d sell like Ma’s records.

But I’ll take ’em off your hands for you.

[chuckles] Mr. Sturdyvant, sir.

I don’t know what fellas you had playing them songs, but if I could play them, I’d set them down in the people’s lap.

Now, you told me I could record them songs.

There’s nothing I can do about that.

Like I say, it’s $5 apiece. That’s what I’ll pay ya.

I’m doing you a favor.

If you write any more, I’ll help you out and take ’em off your hands.

The price is $5 apiece. Just like now.

Hey, watch it, now.

Shit. You stepped on my shoe.

Excuse me there, Levee.

Look at that.

N*gga, you stepped on my shoe.

What you do that for?

Said I’m sorry.

You gonna step on my goddamn shoe. You done fucked up my shoe.

Look at what you done to my shoe, n*gga.

I ain’t step on your shoe. What you wanna step on my shoe for?

Man said he was sorry.

How the hell he gonna be sorry when he done ruined my shoe?

Come talk about sorry.

N*gga, you stepped on my shoe, you know that?

See what you done done?

I said, “Excuse me.” Now it’s over.

What you want me to do, huh?

Wanna go and fuck up my shoe like that.

I ain’t step on your shoe. Huh? Look at this.

Okay, come on, now.

Naw, naw. Look at what you done.

Look at that. That’s my shoe.

You did it. You did it!

You fucked up my shoe.

You stepped on my shoe with them raggedy-ass clodhoppers.

Ain’t nobody studying about you and your shoe.

I said, “Excuse me.”

If you can’t accept that, then the hell with it.

What you want me to do?

You stepped on my shoe.

[gasps, groans]

[Toledo whimpers]

He… He stepped on my shoe. He did.

Honest. Cutler, he stepped on my shoe.

What he do that for? Toledo, what you do that for?

[gasping, groans]

Cutler, help.

He stepped on my shoe.

Cutler!

[Levee breathing heavily]

It’s okay, Toledo. I’ll help you.

Come on, Toledo.

[Levee grunting]

[panting]

Oh, no.

[Levee breathing heavily]

Don’t…

[breathing shakily]

Don’t look at me like that.

Don’t look at me like that.

[somber music playing]

[breathing heavily]

[upbeat music playing]

♪ You can swing it, you can bring it ♪

♪ You can dance at any hall ♪

♪ You can slide across the floor ♪

♪ You’ll never have to stall Oh, my jelly roll ♪

♪ My jelly roll ♪

♪ Oh, my jelly roll ♪

♪ My jelly roll ♪

♪ Oh, my jelly roll ♪

♪ Please, baby, let me have it all ♪

[blues music playing]

[vocalizing]

♪ My bell rang this morning ♪

♪ Didn’t know which way to go ♪

♪ My bell rang this morning ♪

♪ Didn’t know which way to go ♪

♪ I had the blues so bad ♪

♪ I sit right down on my floor ♪

♪ I felt like going on the mountain ♪

♪ Jumping over in the sea ♪

♪ I felt like going in the mountain ♪

♪ Jumping over in the sea ♪

♪ When my daddy stay out late ♪

♪ He don’t care a thing for me ♪

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