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The Scarlet & Black

Loudspeaker: The great unknown Geeshie Wiley

Among the greatest tracks of pre-war rural blues, there exist few songs that are so stunning yet so vexing as Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues.” It was recorded in April 1930 for Paramount Records’ “race records” series, a collection of blues and jazz music by Black musicians primarily marketed to Black audiences. Much of the music recorded on these records was by so-called “country blues” musicians, entirely acoustic tracks of the genre in its rawest form. Artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Tommy Johnston and Big Bill Broonzy would achieve mainstream success from white audiences decades later, but a host of country blues performers languish in personal obscurity. Slung between folk, blues and gospel, many of these musicians burnt brightly in recorded sound while their personal histories remain dimly lit. 

In spite of her startling talent, which lead blues historian Don Kent to write that “her scope and creativity dwarfs most blues artists,” very little is conclusively known about Wiley’s life. Even her birthplace is not certain, let alone where she died. No photographs of her exist. Recent research estimates that less than ten of her original recordings survive, three of which contain “Last Kind Words Blues.” A massive piece in The New York Times Magazine from 2014 catalogued efforts to discover her life, but its researchers and interviews came up with scraps of information too small to sew into a conclusive story.

Even without a story to explain, Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues” endures as a testament to its genre’s power and beauty. It opens with its complex bluesy drone and thumps on the guitar bass string, played entirely in minor key. The dark lamentation of the song is immediately evident from its instrumentation as well as its lyrics. If there is a feeling “Last Kind Words Blues” makes its own, it is ache. Wiley sings about love and loss, about waiting for someone to return who wanted “buzzards to eat [him] whole” if he gets killed. She stands across the Mississippi River and can “see [her] babe from the other side.” She loves this person so much she is willing to give him “bolted meal,” a product left over from the sifting process in mills, even if she can’t find flour. At the same time, Wiley seems to tempt us with biographical information, singing: “My mama told me, just before she died / Lord, precious daughter, don’t you be so wild.”

Though Wiley’s lyrics are excellent, it is her voice that grants the song its resonance. Her singing is simple and uncomplicated, in direct contrast to its complex instrumentation. Wiley’s voice takes on an almost ghostly quality amid the scratchiness of surviving copies of the track, like a spirit voice at a séance. She opens the song with: “The last kind words I heared my daddy say / Lord, the last kind words I heared 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.” 

“Last Kind Words Blues” was made famous as the music to a particularly evocative montage in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary “Crumb.” The subject of that film, underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, is a well-known collector of country blues music, a charter member of the gangly, mostly white brotherhood of archivists that preserved this genre for posterity. Prior to the montage starting, Crumb places the record on the turntable, saying: “When I listen to old music, it’s one of the few times when I actually have a kind of a love for humanity. … It’s their way of expressing their connection to eternity of whatever you want to call it.” The raw humanity of Wiley’s song is undeniable. It evokes feeling even without a legendary backstory or vocal complexity. The song concludes as Wiley sings: “What you do to me baby it never gets outta me / I may not see you after I cross the deep blue sea…” What she does musically in “Last Kind Words Blues” never truly leaves the engaged listener,  regardless of whether we see her again, or whether we cross “the deep blue sea.”

— Maxwell Fenton ’19

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