Why It’s Perfect: The human love of recording originates in our own constant awareness of the passing of time, and by extension our own lives. It’s an attempt to defy Heraclitus’ hoary old chestnut that “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” The moment is preserved, and so we may return to that moment at will. Record collectors take this property of stasis and turn it into an obsession. They must have not only the contents of the record, not only the object itself to anchor them to that time and place, but a sound specific to that object. But since you last listened to (or read or watched) a recording, you have changed, and so for that matter has the recording. It degrades, decays, loses frequencies, becomes over years a unique sonic artefact. And so, ironically, what the record collector most keenly wishes to preserve is actually the function of change itself.
Geeshie Wiley’s 1930 recording of Last Kind Words Blues is one of the holy grails for 78 RPM record collectors, and it’s easy to hear why. Her singing is untouched by any modern production contrivance; there is nothing constructed in its sadness. Rather, it has a quality of an old, bone-deep ache, the kind which numbs all positive feeling. The vocal melody is a traditional blues lament, but Wiley’s cadence is unique, coming to rest at odd moments before hollering out her conclusions. Her only accompaniment is an idiosyncratic minor-key guitar arrangement musicologists have suggested may be even older than the song’s Great War-era lyric. All of this is adorned by a bed of static that makes you feel as though the song might disappear into the ether at any moment, even in digital form carrying the scars of nearly a century of ambles round a turntable.
Wiley is an obscure figure, appearing on a mere six recordings before vanishing completely from the historical record. There are no photos of her, and what second-hand biographical information we have reads like an outline for a Michael Ondaatje poem; suggestions she toured with a medicine show in the twenties, rumours of failed marriages to hell-raising bluesmen. Even her name is pseudonymous. Geeshie (or Geechie, as she’s sometimes credited) is a slang term and occasional slur for the Gullah blacks of Georgia and South Carolina, a cultural group known for maintaining unusually strong ties to its original African identity. These scraps may hold some secret to shaking out the truths of Wiley’s landmark recording, but barring the emergence of new evidence, there’d be no way to verify if some dreaming listener did stumble upon the true, “objective” interpretation. She is Wiley indeed.
Last Kind Words Blues is haunted with spirits, dire promises and that ancient vinyl hiss, like a daguerreotype of a frontier ghost town. The lyrics ostensibly concern a man setting his affairs in order before heading off to “the German war” and his presumably widowed wife’s (or daughter’s?) journey to find him, but that summary hardly captures the mysterious Southern poetry of the lyric. From the man’s last request for a decidedly unchristian sky burial (“please don’t bury my soul, / I p’fer y’just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole”) to the enigma of who speaks the death-shrouded final lines “What you do to me baby, it never gets out of me,/ I may not see you after I cross the deep blue sea,” it exists in a misty obscurity all its own.
Themes of crossing and travel crop up throughout the song, most notably the Mississippi River and the deep blue sea from which there may be no return. These literal and symbolic barriers of distance and death oppose the speaker’s implacable will to reunite with her man and undo the changes forced on her life by time and circumstance; “I went to the depot, looked up at the stars / Cried, some train don’t come, there’ll be some walkin’ done.” Even the doomed soldier’s last kind words have an echo of the mythological underworld; his body returned to his mother and consumed by vultures, he will come to her with a gift of flour or bolted meal. Food is often symbolic of life, but as mythology tells us, to eat the food of the underworld is to be condemned to remain there, simultaneously dead and alive. The couplet often transcribed as “the Mississippi River, you know it’s deep and wide / I can stand right here, see my babe from the other side” is strange and beautiful in its own right, but many listeners hear the word “face” rather than “babe”; a substitution meaning everything and nothing.
There’s some peculiar romance in the idea of Wiley “disappearing” not long after she recorded her scant few songs. You can imagine her walking purposefully into the river like Virginia Woolf, never to be heard from again. It’s a river of white noise rising over her head, vinyl degradation as entropy. All that’s left are these scant recordings, to make of what you will. Something different each time, no doubt.
Defining Moment: The song is defined by Wiley’s singing, clearly, but I’ll take this opportunity to spotlight the spindly guitar break, as I didn’t mention it elsewhere.
Other Great Songs by Geeshie Wiley: Wiley only released two singles, Last Kind Words Blues/Skinny Leg Blues and Eagles on a Half/Pick Poor Robin Clean, while appearing on another few songs by Elvie Thomas (who probably played second guitar on most of Wiley’s own singles). These others are all considered seminal country blues cuts, but they’re all a lot more conventional than Last Kind Words Blues, and to be honest, I’m just not that big a fan of the blues in general. Still worth a look for those so inclined.