Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Ghost of Blind Joe Death

There’s a good article in the November issue of Harper’s Magazine in which John Jeremiah Sullivan walks us through the lives of those who care a lot about the blues. (Subscribers can find the article here.)

The departure point comes from a time when Sullivan was working as a researcher for the Oxford American and had been charged by his editors to figure out some lyrics being quoted in an article by Greil Marcus. The song was by Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, who had recorded six sides for Paramount in 1930. In order to try and sort out the lyrics, Sullivan calls up John Fahey, who was on his last legs and living in a welfare hotel in Portland, Oregon.

”Sh*t, I don’t have any f*cking idea,” Fahey said. “It doesn’t really matter, anyway. They always just said any old sh*t.”

That seemed to be the end of our experiment. Fahey said, “Give me about an hour. I’m going to spend some time with it.”

And over the course of the day, Sullivan and Fahey figure out what some of the lyrics are, hitting the OED and other old record collectors up for information in the process. (If you don’t find rushing to consult the OED thrilling, then this article might not be for you.)

The key revelation for me was with regard to the word “kind”:

When Wiley says “kind”--as in, “The last kind words I heard my daddy say”--she doesn’t mean it like we do; she doesn’t mean nice; she means the word in its older sense of natural (with the implication that everything her daddy says is unnatural, is preternatural). Southern idiom has retained that older usage, in phrases involving the word “kindly,” as in “I thank you kindly,” which--and the OED bears this out--represent a clinging vestige of the primary, archaic meaning: not I thank you politely and sweetly but I thank you in a way that’s appropriate to your deed.

This description of Fahey also struck a chord (if I may):

It’s possible that he feared giving in to the almost demonic force this music had exerted over so many--or worried he’d done so already. I’m fairly certain his irony meter hovered at zero when he titled his 2000 book of short stories How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life.

And I thought that this factoid about the depths that one record collector went to was rather priceless:

Those trips to locate old blues guys started out as trips to canvass records. Gayle Dean Wardlow became a pest-control man at one point, in order to have a legitimate excuse to walk around black neighborhoods beating on doors. “Need your house sprayed?” Nah. “Got any weird old records in the attic?”

The remainder of the article describes some of the music released by the record label that John Fahey co-founded in his later years, Revenant Records, and reviews two recent books about blues collectors, Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues: The White Invention of Black Music. Worth a read.

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