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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.
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