Thursday, June 3, 2010

1930: “Last Kind Word Blues” by Geeshie Wiley

What are we to make of Geeshie Wiley? She appeared, made a few country blues records just before the genre's market perished in the Great Depression, and then disappeared back into the ether from whence she came. There are no known pictures of her; all the information we know about her are sketches that walk the line between hearsay and rumor: she may have been from Natchez, Mississippi (or somewhere nearby), she was supposedly romantically linked to Papa Charlie Jackson or Casey Bill Weldon (or both of them, or neither of them), she is said to have worked in the traveling medicine show in the 1920s (unless she didn’t). We don’t even know her real name – “Geeshie” was a southern nickname for an African American woman.

Mysterious figures from the past are nothing new, but the advent of recording technology ups the ante. Unlike an old folktale or faded photograph, a record is just that – a record – a document that captures something so intimate yet at the same time entirely intangible. Playing one can be like conjuring a ghost in a room. There is something ethereal about the experience that can stay with you long after the record has ended. A few films picked up on this idea in the mid-1990s, most notably Ghost World, which featured Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman,” and Crumb, which featured Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues.” Through the Crumb soundtrack, Geeshie Wiley began to creep into the American collective consciousness like a memory that’s so old you can’t be sure if it ever actually happened. This is the realm where Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues” exists.

It’s a haunting song, beginning with churning guitar chords emerging through the static fuzz of a thousand rusty needles. A distant, lonesome melody is picked out on the guitar, stepping forward then doubling back on itself, answered by dark, rhythmic chords that try to stomp it out like a small forest fire. Wiley begins singing the melody while picking it out on her guitar so that the notes become phantom footsteps that walk along with her words. Her vocal gives us almost nothing to work with – it is entirely deadpan, void of any apparent emotion, anger, or fear. She doesn’t so much sing the blues as she does report them, as though she was a lost soul telling her life story from purgatory. Even when she was alive, she sang as though she was dead.

What gives the recording its power and tension then, is the effortless stream-of-conscious imagery that forms the song’s words, borrowing old blues lines and making up new ones, all sung in the same haunted, blank voice. It is like trying to follow someone’s path through the fog: the vocal doesn’t so much sit on top of the song as it does appear, disappear, and reappear throughout it, sometimes obscured by the second churning guitar, the crackle of the record’s surface noise, or Wiley’s own southern dialect. Like Wiley herself, the song seems to mysteriously exist on its own terms, holding all but revealing nothing.

All we get are snatches. For the record, the last kind word the singer hears her daddy say is that if he dies in the German War (which we now know as World War I), she should send his body back to his mother-in-law. Clearly, these words don’t sound very kind. Is this supposed to be a joke? A cruel statement of bitter irony? Or is this truly the closest thing to kind words the singer has recently experienced? She then either recounts his further instructions about if he dies, or reflects on her own: “If I get killed, ’f I get killed, please don’t bury my soul,” she intones. “Just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole.”

It has been suggested that the blues are the first musical form built primarily on irony, and while that may be an overstatement, it does speak to the idea that much of the best blues explores the place between what one asks for and what one receives; “I asked for water,” goes the classic Tommy Johnson line, “and she gave me gasoline.” What makes “Last Kind Word Blues” so intriguing is a seeming lack of irony – the way Geeshie Wiley sings it challenges us to take every word entirely literally. Thus, her daddy’s words just may have been the last kind thing she heard, and when she sings about the buzzards eating a corpse whole, she sounds even more serious.

From there, the singer becomes a wanderer, making her way through a lost world of near-gothic simplicity. In one verse, she walks across the rich man’s field, in another she goes to the train depot and looks at the sign, in yet another she recalls her mother’s words to her just before she died – the content of which is oddly (or perhaps appropriately) rendered unintelligible by the poor sound quality of the recording itself.

And then, in the most beautiful and bizarre image of them all, she looks across the Mississippi River and sees her face on the other side. “What you do, to me baby,” she sings in the final verse, “It never gets out of me.”

The same could be said about Geeshie Wiley.

[This is from the continuing series “100 Years of American Recordings, 1891-1991.”]

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post! I was looking for some interpretation on this groundbreaking song, and its mysterious lyrics. I think you've done great job here!!!