…OR A PHANTOM STILL IN LOVE WITH THE LIVING.
Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned pains sustained us?
Who will compute the lonely nights made less lonely by your songs,
or by the empty pots made less tragic by your tales.
———–“I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou
Geeshie Wiley—or Geechie, as she’s also known as—is one of those mysterious figures whose particulars and papers have dissipated into history. Purportedly she was from Natchez, Mississippi, yet Geeshie and Geechie are nicknames for a woman from the African American community that live in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia: the Gullah.
“The Gullah are a community of African Americans who have lived along the Atlantic coastal plain and on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia since the late seventeenth century. Comprised of the descendants of slaves who lived and worked on the Sea Islands, Gullah communities continued to exist into the early twenty-first century, occupying small farming and fishing communities in South Carolina and Georgia. The Gullah are noted for their preservation of African cultural traditions, which was made possible by the community’s geographic isolation and its inhabitants’ strong community life. They speak an English-based creole language also called Gullah, or among Georgia Sea Islanders called Geechee” (Maxwell, 2006, p.959).
It is believed—mostly assumed from her style of performance—that Geechie worked in the numerous traveling “medicine shows” of the 1920s, and there certainly is something distinctive to her approach to blues music. However, all that is truly known about her is that at some point in March of 1930, and again a year later in March of 1931, Geeshie and fellow female guitarist Elvie Thomas (another mystery) arrived in Grafton, Wisconsin to record six sides together for Paramount Records. Of the four songs performed for that first date, one is arguably the most haunting thing ever recorded. “People have argued that the song represents a lone survival of an older, already vanishing, minstrel style; others that it was a one-off spoor, an ephemeral hybrid that originated and died with Wiley and Thomas, their attempt to play a tune they’d heard by a fire somewhere” (Sullivan, 2009, p.32).
Regardless of its germ, “Last Kind Words Blues” is received like a series of love letters and suicide notes scrawled slowly and plainly in black ink on faded postcards; each depicting another landscape taken from an empty America; all postmarked from Desolation Row. Beginning with dense strums of a minor chord upon seemingly rusty strings, the song then constricts in on itself to create a spiral of syncopated guitars that wrinkle and slide. It is as if Geeshie (with Elvie’s assistance) was constructing a mandala to project the words of her dead lover. When the words come, they arrive as an unraveling yellow ribbon through the fog, with a deliberate confusion as to who is speaking: the man killed in “the German war” or the woman he left behind?
The melody holds the sonorous moan of a southern spiritual or work song, but it is delivered from someone who’s been gutted of nearly every emotion, even sadness. It may be odd, or ironic, but it is in this desolate territory, with its moribund recital and dead passion that the song gains its power of pathos. In fact, it is this song that plays in Terry Zwigoff’s 1995 documentary Crumb, when legendary comic artist Robert Crumb states: “When I listen to old music, it’s one of the few times I actually have a, kind of love for humanity. You hear the best part of a soul of a common people, their, you know, their way of expressing the connection to eternity, or whatever you want to call it.”
“The Mississippi river, you know it’s deep and wide.
I can stand right here, see my face from the other side.”
When Wiley reports this, it’s like she looked the whole world over and the only person she could find in it was herself. Or, as Marcus (1997) writes in The Old, Weird America: “Geechie Wiley can see her face from across the Mississippi River because hers is the only face to see; all those she loves are dead, and there is no hint of community or society, of town and fellowship, anywhere in her song.” In other words, this is a tale of total and absolute abandonment, the story of a lost ghost.
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Due to the audio quality, certain words are disputed. However, here is what I believe the lyrics to be:
The last kind words I heard my daddy say
Lord, the last kind words I heard my daddy say
If I die, if I die in the German war
I want you to send my body, send it to my mother, Lord
If I get killed, if I get killed, please don’t bury my soul
I prefer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole
When you see me comin’ look ‘cross the rich man’s field
If I don’t bring you flour I’ll bring you bolted meal
I went to the depot; I looked up at the sun
Cried, some train don’t come, there’ll be some walkin’ done
My mama told me, just before she died
Lord, precious daughter, don’t you be so wild
The Mississippi river, you know it’s deep and wide
I can stand right here, see my face from the other side
What you do to me baby it never gets outta me
I may not see you after I cross the deep blue sea
Angelou, M. (1983). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. : Bantam
Marcus, G. (1997). The Old, Weird America. New York: Picador.
Maxwell, L. P., (2006). Gullah. In Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History (Vol. 3. pp. 959-963). Detroit: Macmillan Reference.
Sullivan, J. J., (2009). Unknown Bards. In G. Marcus & D. Carr (Eds.), Best Music Writing 2009 (pp. 29-53). Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo.
Wiley, G. (1930). Last Kind Words Blues [recorded by Geeshie Wiley & Elvie Thomas]. On Mississippi Blues: Rare Cuts 1926-41. [CD] Jsp Records. (2007)
Zwigoff, T., O’Donnell, L., Lynch, D. (Producers), & Zwigoff, T. (Director). (1995). Crumb [Motion picture]. U.S.A.: Sony Pictures Classics.