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In the November 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine, John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote a fascinating article. The subject: his attempts to fact-check a piece Greil Marcus was writing on “Last Kind Words Blues.” The song, by the mysterious Geeshie Wiley, existed only as a scratchy, hard-to-make-out recording. Marcus wanted to quote some lines, but he couldn’t make out the exact words. To investigate, Sullivan visited famed guitarist/folk historian John Fahey. The back and forth of them trying to puzzle out this ancient recording is a must-read. Here’s an excerpt from earlier in the piece though, of Sullivan describing the mysterious recording:
Not many ciphers have left as large and beguiling a presence as Geeshie Wiley. Three of the six songs she and Elvie Thomas recorded are among the greatest country-blues performances ever etched into shellac, and one of them, “Last Kind Words Blues,” is an essential work of American art, sans qualifiers, a blues that isn’t a blues, that is something other, but is at the same time a perfect blues, a pinnacle.
Some 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. The verses don’t follow the A-A-B repeating pattern common to the blues, and the keening melody isn’t like any other recorded example from that or any period. Likewise with the song’s chords: “Last Kind Words Blues” opens with a big, plonking, menacing E but quickly withdraws into A minor and hovers there awhile (the early blues was almost never played in a minor key). The serpentine dual-guitar interplay is no less startling, with little sliding lead parts, presumably Elvie’s, moving in and out of counterpoint. At times it sounds like four hands obeying a single mind and conjures scenes of endless practicing, the vast boredoms of the medicine-show world. – Read the full article.
Regular readers will remember Samm Bennett as the magnificently eccentric star of our very first Under the Radar. We bring him back today with a live version of “Last Kind Words Blues.” Accompanied by an acoustic guitarist, Bennett plays the “walking drums,” an instrument of his own invention. Check out his version, then head here to listen to Jack White‘s.
Check out more Samm Bennett at YouTube.