(Greil Marcus, Robert Polito) In 1930 a blues singer and guitarist named Geeshie Wiley recorded a song that opened up the deepest crevices of the American imagination. Then she fell off the map. While recent research has, for the first time, tracked the outlines of her life, she remains in the mist—and in this talk, the song writes the singer's adventures in the long years after she once spoke in public to describe life as she knew it. A conversation with Poetry Foundation president Robert Polito follows.

Published Date: January 13, 2016


Speaker 1 (00:00:03):

Welcome to the A W P podcast series. This event was recorded at the 2015 A W P conference in Minneapolis. The recording features Grail Marcus and Robert Polito. You will now hear a w p Board of Trustees member Elise Passion and Robert Polito, president of the Poetry Foundation provide introductions.

Speaker 2 (00:00:33):

Hi everybody. We're about to start the program. Welcome to Disappearance and Forgetting, geisha Wiley, and last kind words, blues. My name is Elise Passion and I'm a member of the Board of Trustees of a w p. Before we start today's presentation, I need to ask you to please turn off your cell phones. Remember, there is no flash photography allowed during the presentation and to please give the writers about 15 minutes after the event to walk to their book signing table. I would like to express gratitude to the Poetry Foundation for its major sponsorship of our conference. And now it is my great pleasure to introduce Robert Polito, president of the Poetry Foundation.

Speaker 3 (00:01:36):

Thank you very much Elise. So thank you. My thanks to everybody at A W P and at the Poetry Foundation. I especially wish to thank my friend and colleague, Steve Young for making this program possible

Speaker 3 (00:01:55):

Word by word, sentence by sentence, piece by piece and book by book Grill. Marcus is one of our very greatest nonfiction writers. Criticism is itself an exemplary vocation with a noble tradition behind it, winding back centuries as the film critic and painter Mannie Farber once proposed. Criticism is very important and difficult. I can't think of a better thing for a person to do, but Grail Marcus, much like Mannie Farber is not only an exemplary American critic, always alive to ideas, alert to nuances, and full of surprises. He's also one of our most original, audacious and dazzling pro stylists. His most recent book, A History of Rock and Roll in 10 Songs can be read I think as a brilliant distillation of his techniques and styles has advanced and syncopated and perfected over the years since. Mystery Train through Lipstick traces the old Weird America and the Shape of Things to Come Prophecy and the American Voice.

Speaker 3 (00:03:02):

As he intimates those techniques and styles, he summons phrases that invoke a sense of discovery, so radical that they inscribe the invention of a new way of talking that is also a new way of living. As he writes early on in the history of rock and roll in 10 songs, whole intellectual industries are devoted to proving that there is nothing new under the sun. That everything comes from something else and to such a degree that one can never tell when one thing turns into something else, but it is the moment when something appears as if out of nowhere. When a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention of discovery that is worth listening for. It is that moment when a song or a performance is its own manifesto, issuing its own demands on life in its own new language, which though the charge of novelty is its essence is immediately grasped by any number of people who will swear they never heard anything like it before.

Speaker 3 (00:04:06):

In rock and roll, this is a moment that in historical time is repeated again and again until his culture. It defines the art itself as Grill. Marcus moves through those 10 songs, situating them along, looping explosions of associations across hundreds of other songs, explosions also of story and history. He keeps finding and tracking moments like that and still more impressively, he keeps finding language for them for all reel's earlier achievements. This book is also like nothing else we know Today. Reel will be speaking about another song from another forthcoming book. His title today, as Elise suggested, is disappearing and forgetting last kind words, Kishi Wiley. Please join me in welcoming real Marcus.

Speaker 3 (00:05:10):

Thank you. Thank you, Robert. I'll do my best to at least partly live up to that and I'll just go right in. Last kind words Blues was one of only six songs recorded by a singer and guitarist who used the name Geisha Wiley, all in 1930, all at the same session in Grafton, Wisconsin for the Paramount Label, a division of the Wisconsin Chair Company and it was a common business model. Furniture companies made expensive phonograph cabinets and then they made records for people to play on them. Paramount was founded in 1917. It started out recording absolutely everything from Pokas to cocktail jazz to marches to Ethel Waters Pure Data. That data strain. Have you heard it? Have you heard it? It will shake you. It will make you go insane. The datas would've loved it and I'm sure they heard it, but by 1926, paramount had become a race label and that meant records by and marketed to African-Americans.

Speaker 3 (00:06:24):

It was white owned, but with a black talent executive who had free Reign. Paramount sold hundreds of thousands of copies of records by Blind Lemon Jefferson. Among them songs that from his day to ours have never been out of mind. Matchbox Blues, easy Rider, blues Black Snake Moan, and over the next five years with scouts all over the south looking funneling performers from by train to Chicago and then to Wisconsin, they would record almost all of the performers who today stand as giants in the schools of Mississippi Blues and as performers who if they were left out of any conversation about American art, would leave that conversation not only incomplete, but a fraud. Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, sun House, skip James and far more R c a Victor. Well, really in those days just Victor Victor was paying Al Jolson $10,000 to record a single song and Paramount could make money by paying a singer 50, maybe $75 for each side of a 78 no royalties and no publishing rights.

Speaker 3 (00:07:47):

Sometimes as with Charlie Patton, they'd press tens of thousands of copies of a release and sometimes a thousand or less, but in all cases the commitment to quality was the same. Paramount was famous for making the worst sounding records on the market in the 1950s and 1960s. Collectors of those few Skip James or Sun House records that had survived in some cases only a single cop or two people used to joke that Paramount sounded so bad that they must've been made out of dirt and they were made out of dirt. There was lamp blacking, there was shellac, there was cotton filling, but mostly those records are made out of clay from the banks of the Milwaukee River, which ran right by the paramount factories in Grafton and workers would leave defective records in piles outside the factory and along with local school children, they'd sail them into the river where Skip Devil got.

Speaker 3 (00:08:56):

My woman would race Sun houses my black mama to Lake Michigan, like the five other recordings that Geisha Wiley made under her own name or with that of her musical partner, l v Thomas, and that was her whole real name, l v, which on Paramount labels was rendered as LV of those five records, the song Skinny Leg Blues and Motherless Child Blues Over to My House Pick Poor Robin, clean and Eagles on a Half last kind words Blues as one anonymous writer has said rests on a bed of static, but it isn't just noise. In this case, the static, the sound of that Mississippi River clay is inseparable from the voice of the song. It drapes an aura of the far away, the lost and the abandoned over the performance and the performance is all of those things from the start, the static again, the anonymous writer that makes you feel as though the song might disappear at any moment.

Speaker 3 (00:10:12):

The static speaks a language in which even the most clearly voiced word is ambiguous in its setting and the setting itself is only barely visible through its own haze and its appropriate. Until the publication in 2014 of John Jeremiah sullivan's the ballot of Geisha and LV in the New York Times Magazine, nobody really knew anything about Geisha Wiley or LV Thomas and most of her life still remains in the midst, including how to say her first name. Starting in the sixties, blues fanatics searched for decades for facts about Gehi Wiley and LV Thomas, but nothing was found. Not their real names, not where and when they were born, where they were from, where they lived, when presumably they died With one exception In 1961, the Blues Scholar m McCormick of Houston pursuing his idea that the real source of the beginnings of the blues was in Texas, not in Mississippi.

Speaker 3 (00:11:24):

He located Thomas right there in the same city right there in Houston. He'd followed the notion that LV was likely a corruption of l v. It wasn't uncommon for women of her generation to be named with letters and though Thomas had long since blues for the church, she talked to McCormick and she gave him the Rosetta Stone of what would half a century later become. John Jeremiah Sullivan's quest. But until Sullivan gained access to McCormick's transcript, not a word of what he found circulated anywhere, even McCormick had lost it. He knew he had spoken to LV Thomas. He had no idea where his transcript of his interviews with her were, but Sullivan had a research assistant. She found it and he was able to fill in the facts and even the undercurrents of LV Thomas's long life to the point of convening a reunion of friends and parishioners and relatives who brought her so close, it was maddening that she wasn't there.

Speaker 3 (00:12:36):

Stories of Thomas as a devout and beloved sister of the church, a powerful gospel singer, a woman one did not approach lightly. A lesbian who always carried a long barreled pistol under her apron. Sister LV Thomas's voice was like melodic sister Idel Murray, a Mount Pleasant missionary Baptist told Sullivan in 2013, it would just get in your ears, it would just float. I remember once thinking about the slaves when they were out working and singing, that was the type of images that you would get from her music because it would just carry you away. But while as Thomas spoke to McCormick Gehi, Wiley came half into focus for the first part of her life. The rest remained a blank from McCormick's type script. Sullivan learned that LV was LV that she was born in 1891 in Houston that Gehi Wiley's given name was Lily Mae.

Speaker 3 (00:13:42):

Thomas began playing guitar when she was 11 and about 1902 there were blues even back then. She said to McCormick, which meant that she remembered when there weren't, I can't hardly name them. She said in 1961, I don't know that those songs even had a name. One song was, oh my Babe, take Me Back. Another was Jack of Diamonds. I remember something about a cotton picking blues and there was some about I'm going to leave You. I think there were always songs about goodbye. I'm leaving, and through census and county records, Thomas's unpublished words led Sullivan to Wiley's birth year 1908 and to her arrest in 1931 for the murder of her second husband with a knife, but not what happened after that are really what happened at all. She might've run, she might've gone to prison. The case might never have been prosecuted. It was Houston, it was 1931. It was two black people and who cared after that except for Thomas's mention to McCormick that in the mid thirties Geshe Wiley was in Oklahoma that she was supposed to be maybe in west Texas in the mid fifties there was nothing.

Speaker 3 (00:15:10):

Thomas was 17 years older than Wiley making them unusual partners. Thomas was 38 when they recorded Wiley 21 or 22, she gave Wiley her name. Thomas told McCormick, which paramount shuffled as easily as they did LV in a little spoken warmup to pick poor Robin Clean that sounds like part of a minstrel skit. Wiley calls Thomas Slack. Her relatives remembered that she never wore anything but pants and Thomas calls Wiley Geechee in the east. Geechee would've referred to the Gullah people of Georgia and South Carolina, but in Houston where the two women came together as a duo, Geechee would've meant redhead or country backward or no count. Coming from a woman that wildly played with, it was a backhand intimacy. There is a photograph found in a box of keepsakes that Thomas who died in Houston in 1979 left to a niece whose daughter shared it with Sullivan, a handsome woman posing with her feet on the running board of a 1927 Buick Roadmaster and she's hatless with light brown skin and what might be reddish hair pulled back. She wears a light colored dress, white stockings and what a person looking called serious white pumps

Speaker 3 (00:16:41):

Might be Wiley. On the back of the picture is a name that starts with an L that might be followed with an E or it might be Thomas's longtime quasi wife or it might be somebody else. In 2014 when Sullivan shared the photo with me, Wiley would've been 106 and that year our family doctor in Berkeley mentioned that his oldest patient was a black woman who was 106.

Speaker 3 (00:17:12):

Thomas herself after accepting what she called the master and adjuring sinful music after 1937 and spent nine years in the late thirties into the forties in San Francisco working for the Key Railroad, the street car and cable car system, and maybe spending time on Telegraph Hill at Mona's, a lesbian bar that featured male impersonators including such singers as Butch Minton Rose O'Neal, built as the female Fred Astaire and Gladys Bentley, the brown bomber of sophisticated songs. Why not? Why Gehi Wiley end up in the Bay Area herself. So I couldn't help asking her name is Bertha Owens. Our doctor said, why are you asking? I explained that's not her, he said, but she did sing with Louis Armstrong. But if DH Lawrence is right, when he says Never trust the artist, trust the tale, that doesn't matter. We don't have to care who she was, where she went, what she meant to say.

Speaker 3 (00:18:19):

We care what the songs say. One version of the tongue spoken over that static was in 1930 and many ways today instantly recognizable a tongue that translated itself. It's the speech of what's called the folk lyric song where phrases and lines and couplets or whole verses migrate from tune to tune from blacks to whites and back again without regard for subject or locale. The folk lyrics song gives you say the West Virginia blues guitarist Frank Hutchson in 1926 and the Mississippi blues guitarist Robert Johnson 10 years later testifying in turn first Hutchinson, the whole world. They sure can have my room and then Johnson, the black man you been loving girl can get my room. One singer trying to say everything, the other singer trying to blow off the need to say anything. Every combination of tunes, of lines, of verses of fragments swallowed its origin. Every phrase was stripped of any authorship.

Speaker 3 (00:19:30):

Any singer could claim any words as if they were his or hers alone. Stringing bits and pieces together until the common language, the property of all came forth as the testimony of a single solitary individual, a single solitary, unique American, a speaker with his legitimate acclaim on your attention as he or she could make and that's the shape last kind words takes. That's the shape Wiley uses to tease you with My mama she told me, followed inevitably by just before she died because in the folk lyric tradition, your mother never tells you anything until just before she dies. It just does not happen any more than the words the Mississippi River can ever be followed by anything but is deep and wide, but it's a setup in last kind words, blues. This is where the string is pulled. This is where the song dives into a pool of lines that have never been heard before and Wiley has already begun the song oddly from out of nowhere in the middle, A beginning so strange and stark. The song uses its folk lyric chestnuts to lull you into forgetting where the song found you and where you're going to go. But before that, before she enters the song proper, there is a first song, a wordless 32nd song lined out on her guitar and so complete it seems wrong that any words can follow it. Steve, can we listen to that?

Speaker 3 (00:21:43):

Whoever sang lead Thomas told McCormick of her collaborations with Wiley played lead guitar, the other based and what Wiley plays in those wordless 30 seconds, their echoes of the chiming guitar that blind lemon Jefferson used on his 1928 C that my grave is kept clean but they're distant echoes What she says in her playing, which can't be separated from how she says it, to the point that any epistemological separation of form and content and while these's guitar passages becomes a lie is utterly uncharacteristic of blues. It's a minor chord. Pulling back a retreat, a contemplative tone of a passage that should come after the story is told not before it. And the first note is round and it's heavy. It's a stone that sinks to the bottom of a lake in an instant, but it's also muffled and then swept away consigned to the forgotten but persisting as an echo that will invade everything that follows.

Speaker 3 (00:22:49):

For five long seconds there is a measured but propulsive momentum. Steady steps toward the need to set out, the need to arrive and then a note lifts higher and the player of the mind in her fingers is already looking back on the journey trace before. For a moment the story is stilled and then the first pattern is repeated, but it resembles what you've heard before only as something that can be put down on paper as language as an idea it's something else. As one listener heard it, not unlike a deer being eaten alive as she looks on while her organs are pulled apart, trying to make one last attempt to run and falling flat with arriving motion with that same momentum each as before each note now takes shape as a step back, not forward. The notes bear down on each other piling up, piling up like the bodies of all of those who lost themselves in the story, the passage established at the beginning. All of those people we are about to meet in words. Can we listen to that again?

Speaker 3 (00:24:31):

As Wiley opens her mouth, you know that everybody in the song is already dead. You might come here on a Sunday on a whim Richard Hugo wrote in 1973 Degrees of gray in Phillipsburg. You might come here on a Sunday on a whim, say your life broke down. The last good kiss you had was years ago. You walk these streets laid out by the insane past hotels that didn't last, bars that did the tortured tribe of local drivers to accelerate their lives. Since there won't be another good kiss, there's no need to rush. The last kind words I hear my daddy say while he says as she begins to sing blind lemon jefferson's. There's one kind favor I'll ask of you hovers over the phrase for an instant and then vanishes as Wiley stretches out my and say diving down into them as if there were pools in and of themselves so that you understand you'll never plumb their depths law.

Speaker 3 (00:25:37):

She says, and then as if this is all that will ever need to be said is if anything more would be redundant decoration, kitsch a lie. She offers nine words more. The last kind words I hear my daddy say The first four words are slightly raised, letting the next five float off elsewhere. The last kind words I hear my daddy say, and that is the end of the first verse, all of it, all two lines of it. The verse is made to float in the sea of the song, a spar that is drifted away from whatever shipwreck came from. It isn't the blues form where a line is repeated as this line is followed by a different third line, A punchline. This is a folk lyric fragment from before the blues took shape and it took shape sometime in the 1890s or in the first decade of the 20th century.

Speaker 3 (00:26:34):

But the feeling, the sense of the line that WC Handy heard one day on the street, the line he used to build St. Louis blues. That man got a heart like a rock cast in the sea. The feeling geisha Wiley's voice and in the words that she sings couldn't be anything but blues. It's everything that blues ever implied. It's life. As the blues emerged to define it, the last kind words I hear my daddy say, it seems complete. The song could stop right here or repeat itself until the three minutes necessary for a commercially viable 78 blues record have been registered. But the singer is going to tell you what those last kind words were Kind not in the sense of nice but in a more archaic usage, meaning appropriate, proper. He kindly passed your name onto me, necessary honest, even if the words are not anything anybody wants to hear. So let's listen to the song.

Speaker 4 (00:28:14):

I hear my daddy, if I die, I die in the try. Just me, you look, I bring you flour, I bring you, I went. I looked up at the train walking must you know, stand right here. What

Speaker 3 (00:30:46):

If I die? The man says the singer's daddy in blue's language, your husband or lover, but it could also be her father. In this song, nothing is stable, nothing sounds the same way. Twice meanings fly out of words like birds and disappear before you can name them. If I die, if I die in the German war, I the single word I is stretched out across a whole line. Stopping the song a last word that can't bear to let any other follow it. I want you to send my body, send it to my mother-in-law, the man speaking in the song Can't stop if I get killed. If I get killed, please don't bury my soul. I that I again ripping a hole in the song I cry, just leave me out. Let the buzzards eat me whole. And the words aren't obvious. The man could be saying he wants to be left on the battlefield carrying and nothing more.

Speaker 3 (00:31:45):

Or he could be saying that he wants his soul taken into the stomach of a buzzard, so will travel the world of spirit to bless the dead and damn the living. But if the words are not obvious, nothing about the way Wiley shapes the words is predictable. If I die, if I die is modest, not desperate, it's tender, almost comforting, not scary, leaving you defenseless shocked by the huge eye that follows the if in the if is necessary to give moral weight to the lightness of die as Wiley sings the word and to isolate the way she drops. The same sound that if for the next verse, the phi get killed. Phi get killed to emphasize the hardness of the K sound, putting the weight of the line squarely on killed framing the image. The singer forcing you to see her lover's body, her husband's, her father's as she sees it in pieces.

Speaker 3 (00:32:49):

And yet as Wiley sings the first killed, she almost gives the word a curl for an instant it's been disarmed or she's about to move on, she becomes a wanderer in her own song from verse to verse, it will never be clear if it's the dead man who's singing or the woman Geisha Wiley is playing or her mother or some spirit mediating between them. The eye and each successive verse has no clear owner. The drifting guitar music punctuated by those hard thudding notes breaking every reverie pushes the feeling of voices calling out to each other in each shout falling just short. The song is a seance in which the living and the dead change places until everyone is dead. Someone comes running across a field, someone arrives at a depot. A mother warns her daughter in 1930, the same year that Geshe Wiley recorded last kind words blues, a guitarist named Bayless Rose recorded a tune.

Speaker 3 (00:33:57):

He titled Original Blues. It was a fast little jig, it was light, it was bouncy, it was winking, it was sung in a high and raceless voice. Mississippi River woman, deep and wide, Mississippi River in the guitar sang the next phrase. Mississippi River, deep and wide can see my brownie from this other side. That was the folk lyric artifact passed from hand to hand and song to song for years, decades, even generations, no matter how wide the Mississippi, I can see my baby all the way across it because I love her so much. That's what that line said. When Wiley comes to these lines, to this fragment, this cut and dried folk pleasantry, it dissolves. She's going to empty the Mississippi into her own song. The Mississippi River, you know it's deep and wide and the know the already waiting, the verse raising a portent, darkening the image that the words make, bringing the listener into the song, making you watch the Mississippi River is deep and wide.

Speaker 3 (00:35:11):

I can stand right here, I can stand right here and I can stand right here increasing the tension, the vehement of what's being said, planting the singer's feet on the bank of the river so firmly that nothing could ever move her an inch. I can stand right here, see my face from the other side. So she has opened the song into a metaphysical realm where people turn into ghosts. Ghosts turned into memories, and memories turn into curses over the fact that nothing could have turned out any differently. The singer can stand right here and see her own face from the other side. She is in two places at once or she is nowhere. When you see something from the other side, you see it from the vantage point of death. She sees herself before death took her. She sees herself as she is in death, unless it's always the man who died in the war who's speaking and the singer is imagining his afterlife for him and refusing to let him go.

Speaker 3 (00:36:24):

The words from the other side fade into silence as while he sings them, they fade into the distance, the disappearance. That's the whole theme of the song, what you do to me baby, while he sings to end the song and she sings it. So tenderly what you do to me baby, her eyes sparkling for the first time in the song, what you do to me baby, it never gets out of me. And then it is clearly the woman in the song who is speaking, speaking to her dead man ready to die herself, to traverse a metaphor that in the folk lyric language never means anything but death. What you do to me baby, it never gets out of me. I believe I'll see you after I cross the deep blue sea. Well, that's what she should say. That's what the ear translates first. That's what the song made of a language that's shared by all.

Speaker 3 (00:37:21):

That's what the song wants her to say. And it may even be what the woman in the song, not Wiley, but the fictional construct to which she's giving voice. It may even be what the woman in the song the character wants to say, but Wiley takes another step back. Trust the tale. She hears a voice telling her, and then she hears the song as the product of a single mind, a single will singing to her. And the song says, what? Everything in the song has come before insists. The song has to say, yes, I'm ready to die. But that guarantees nothing because what she sings is this what you do to me baby? It never gets out of me. I may not see you after I cross the deep blue sea. Now there's no question that gehi Wiley's disappearance from history after 1930 played into the romance and the mystery of a song that of a song that is about mystery, but that is how American folk music works.

Speaker 3 (00:38:32):

Forgetting and disappearance are the engines of its romance. They're the motor of the will and the music to create characters to resist the impulse of the greater society. To turn the art of black American men and women into sociology Did last kind words ultimately cause or maybe the right word, is create or mandate the singer's disappearance or make it novelistically inevitable or lead the singer herself to become anonymous, to refuse to acknowledge her own creation, perhaps to change her name, to give up her music, to preserve her song by surrounding the mysteries in the song with a real life mystery, one reinforcing and intensifying the other. That's the specter. The song creates a landscape in which an imposter, a person with a made up name, someone who was never who she said she was, can take a stand that no one else has quite taken, give a speech no one has heard before, and then vanish as if she'd never been born.

Speaker 3 (00:39:44):

When people hear last kind words blues for the first time, they ask the same questions. What is that? Who is she? That voice. They say she sounds like she's singing from out of the ground like she's been buried alive. The truest words written about Gehi Wiley or by the blue Scholar Don Kent. If Gehi Wiley did not exist, she could not be invented. When young blues fanatics roamed the South in the fifties and sixties looking for rare 70 eights, Wiley's name had no currency and her song of which only three copies have ever been found and which not even m McCormick had heard. When he interviewed l v Thomas, that song had been forgotten to the point of an absolute. Her songs didn't really begin to travel until 1995 by way of the Terry's Woff movie Crumb about the cartoonist and one-time record collector r Crumb.

Speaker 3 (00:40:42):

And he walks through his own story as a misanthropic nihilist until he stops in front of a shelf of 70 eights and he pulls out a record and he puts it on a turntable and he lies down in a bed. And as the first notes of Gehi Wiley's song appear on the soundtrack, he begins to talk about the common people and about their way of expressing a connection to eternity or whatever you want to call it. He's embarrassed by the way the pathos of his words have cut them loose from his folk music ideology at how he has shown his true feelings. So he tries to dismiss his own words to bury the fact that as he listened, the music took him out of himself and he tries to push him back into the shell of someone who hates everything. But for a moment he can't. And at that moment, in 1995, Wiley might even have been present to say what she thought, but no one knew where to look. Aside from m McCormick, the transcript filed away more than 30 years before. No one knew her real name and if she was alive, she wasn't talking. Certain crucial facts have now been established, but the records still call out to the woman behind them trying to pull her out from behind the curtain of that static. So we're free to tell any story that we like.

Speaker 3 (00:42:09):

She was born in Oklahoma in the last decade before the turn of the 20th century as a girl, a girl with reddish hair. Other children called her geet, a slur for Cherokee. And maybe they were right. There'd been a lot of free blacks on the trail of tears. She softened the name, but she liked it. Lilly Mae was so common. After recording in Wisconsin, she took a train back to Houston and soon after the depression forced paramount into bankruptcy and there were no more records, she and Thomas performed on the street and they began an affair when her husband found out it came after her with his hands, she pulled a knife and killed him stabbing down into his neck. She spent six months in jail before her case came to trial and the judge threw it out. In 1933, she and LV traveled through Virginia and North Carolina as part of a negro blackface, minstrel troop, aic persons Ethiopian head spinners, playing tambo and bones to the delight of all black audiences.

Speaker 3 (00:43:18):

And then Thomas went back to Houston and soon Wiley was cleaning houses in Memphis. She lived off men. One of her men turned her out. I'm a hustling coon. That's just what I am. She'd sung and picked poor Robin clean up in Wisconsin and once defiant and resigned. So what of it? But soon enough she ran, I'm going to cut your throat, baby, I'll look down in your face. She sang sweetly and skinny leg blues in 1930, but she didn't. She'd seen the faces of other women. Her pimp had cut, so she ran on the outskirts of town approaching a clearing with gas lanterns. She found herself drawn into a revival. She didn't know why she wasn't a believer. And on the edges of the crowd standing apart, she saw a group of about 20 men and women, mostly white, but a few of them black, the men in old fashioned suits and boots and the women in long white dresses.

Speaker 3 (00:44:18):

And they were the lamb family. They said singers and seekers after what they called new harmony at the center was Xander V or Belia Lamb, a big man with a huge white mustache. He was the shepherd as the revival preacher railed down his stentorian up and down cadences and what the Lord wants the Lord gets and what you want, the Lord hates the family, walked off slowly while he among them singing if tonight should end the world under their breath. The devotees were on their way to Portland, Oregon, where they had heard that God appeared in the rain to cleanse his children. But in the city with its open parks and the lack of fear in the air, new harmony had barely found a house before the believers began to leave it. When the shepherd disappeared with three of his nearly grown daughters by two of his wives, wildly like the rest found herself walking the streets.

Speaker 3 (00:45:21):

She heard that Frankie Baker, the real Frankie of all the Frankie and Johnny songs lived in Portland and she wasn't hard to find. She'd come there years before because she loved roses. But to get away from the song, from people pointing at her on the street singing the song at her, the verses about how what she used to pay the judge who acquitted her, but the song had arrived before she did. Her house was a tourist attraction. Wiley knocked on the door. She told Baker that she had a song to sing for her. And once inside she began to sing Frankie and Johnny. No, not that you get out now. Baker shouted at her, no, Wiley said, you haven't heard it like this. This won't make you ashamed. And so she sang the song slowly flattening the sing songy choruses and the foxtrot rhythm that the song had taken on over the decades.

Speaker 3 (00:46:17):

She sang it with a hint of the ragtime that Baker knew from St. Louis in 1899 when Frankie shot her pimp who'd beaten her for coming home short. Now while he made the sound of the life being dragged across time, and for a moment all the guilt and rage that had haunted Bak for more than 40 years fell away. And after that, while we lived with Baker and ran her shoe shine stand, she took the houses her own. In the early fifties when Bak went mad and was sent to the state hospital, she began to go by Lillian Geechee sounded strange in the northwest and Lily Mae was too country. One day in 1957 in Seattle where she was visiting friends, she read that Elvis Presley was coming to town. She'd heard his hound dog on the radio. She was curious who this person might be, a white boy singing the old hound dog songs of her childhood.

Speaker 3 (00:47:17):

And so she talked her way into Seattle Stadium. I used to clean house for Mrs. Presley in Memphis. She told the guard and she called me and asked me to tell her how her boy did. Inside, she sat down next to a teenager. There weren't too many other black people there. Why are you here? She asked him, James Marshall Hendricks, ma'am. He said to her, I'm here to see the king. And after what seemed like ours of the kind of vaudeville show, while he had hated even as a girl, an acrobat, a juggler, a tap dancer, a comedian, the person they had come to see took the stage. I always liked to begin my concerts with a national anthem. He said, would you all please rise? And they rose, Elvis twisted his body into a Z. Grab the microphone stand as if it were a flag post.

Speaker 3 (00:48:10):

You ain't nothing but a hound dog. Were the only words that anybody could really hear as the whole place exploded with pleasure. And in that moment, it was their national anthem. Wiley and the boy hugged each other, jumping up and down, and later he visited her in Portland and she taught him chords he'd never been able to find in the 1960s in the new harmony dress that she always kept perfect. She'd play for tips inside the park, blocks near the statue of Lincoln. She liked how un heroic he looked, how ordinary, how needy, and almost every day she'd play, I am a man of constant sorrow. A song she'd first heard in the twenties. People knew it now because it was on the first album of a folk singer named Bob Dylan. He sang it loudly as if you were sure that you didn't believe him.

Speaker 3 (00:49:05):

And that wasn't how she sang it. The first man to record the song. Emory Arthur in 1927 could hardly do more than bang the guitar. He'd been shot through the hands as one of the men who played with him put it. He couldn't reach the chords, Wiley could. She could charm them as if they were snakes. She was captivated by the swaying rhythm, the say goodbye to old Kentucky, the say goodbye to anywhere and especially the end when the singer imagined and imagines other people. He knows people. He doesn't the whole human race going on with their lives of love and money while I am sleeping in the clay. She imagined herself dead, the red earth all around her, the earth, her shroud, and it was there. And that waking dream that she wrote last kind words, blues and some of the words were old, passed down, obvious inevitable.

Speaker 3 (00:50:05):

Some came to her from places she couldn't name, snatches of conversation she'd overheard in a bar or broken sentence that had formed her mind years before but had never come out of her mouth. Some of the words as they attached themselves to each other made no sense to her at all, but nothing she could have explained if she could. But they felt true as if they were as true as they were out of reach. And she wrote carefully letting the notes on the guitar lead the words slowly until she had it right, until the song had so shaped itself. It felt like she hadn't written it at all. It felt like someone else had written it, that it was her privilege to hear it and pass it on, to live it out as she sang even all those years later, to enact it as small groups of people, black and white, old and young, gathered around her in the park or merely pause for a moment on their way to someone else and found themselves too in the day dreaming of lives that they never lived. Thank you.

Speaker 5 (00:51:18):

Thank you.

Speaker 3 (00:51:33):

So thank you. I'm going to ask reel a few questions and then we'll move to questions from out there. But that was fantastic. Thank you. Thank you very, very much. Since this is an event that's sponsored in part by the Poetry Foundation, I wonder if I might start with some questions about Gehi Wiley that have a kind of undercurrent of poetry kind of running underneath them. A lot of us who write poems look upon our poems as in conversation with other poems, and you talked a little bit about the folk process and the way that these songs are made up of very traditional elements that suddenly move into a very personal or idiosyncratic or kind of different realm. And I wonder if you'd want to say a little bit more about how you see the folk process working. I know it's a huge, huge topic, but Yeah, I mean

Speaker 3 (00:52:28):

It's quite remarkable When you look at a song like Man of Constant Sorrow that's been, like I said, was first recorded in 1927, but it was sung well before that in the 1950s and sixties in folk music circles. It was a huge hit, so to speak, and all different kinds of people sang it and recorded it, and they rarely changed anything about it. And people have worked terribly hard to try and pin down a specific person who wrote the song and who then passed it on to other people as if somehow it's more comforting to us emotionally and intellectually to find a real author for something that interests us or moves us than it is to allow the fact that something may not have an author, that something may simply be floating in the air and that we can't ascribe ownership to it. We want to be able to say, it's you who moved me this way.

Speaker 3 (00:53:37):

And maybe on a kind of subconscious level, it's your fault that I was so moved by this song. In Gisi Wiley's case, you have something really quite radical. You have something that is almost defiant. I'm not aware of anybody else who has taken folk lyric fragments and done anything as extreme as violent and as imaginative as she does with it. The line, if I die, if I die, and it means if I die when I go out there and if I die when I climb that mountain, and if I die when I cross that river, that's how the line if I die works. But in the German war, it's not supposed to have anything so specific. You're not supposed to talk about World War I, which of course when Gushi was singing in 1930 was not called World War I, but it was the German war.

Speaker 3 (00:54:38):

It's very uncanny listening to the song in 1930 to realize that it's surrounded on both sides by German wars. No way she could know unless she did, unless the song has that kind of predictive quality to it. But she makes something very specific out of it. And then after, if I die, if I die, if I get killed, if I get killed, which is unusual, but not outside the realm of the folk lyric, just leave me out. Let the buzzards eat me whole. And then if I get killed, if I get killed, send my body. I want you to send my body, send it to my mother-in-law, which is either all time mother-in-law joke or speaks for a really deep affection. And by this time you're just reeling. And so as she goes on taking these phrases, I went to the depot, I looked up at the sun, I cried train.

Speaker 3 (00:55:49):

Don't come going to be some walking done. Nothing strange about that. There's nothing shifting. There's nothing breaking there except that as she says, I looked up at the sun. She might be saying, I looked up at the sign because when you get to the depot, you don't look at the sun, you don't blind yourself. You look at the sign, you see when the train's coming. It's the normal thing you do, but she doesn't sing that. And then when she gets to the verse about the Mississippi River, it's deep and wide. Yeah, I've heard that one before. I can stand right here, see my face from the other side. In other words, it's not, I can stand right here and see my face from this side, which would be strange enough. I can stand right here, see my face from the other side. That means she's on the other side of the river looking back at herself. And again, you don't even have to hear these words to be caught up in the undertow of the uncanny of the impossible, of the real, becoming impossible in the impossible, becoming real. So in this case, you've got a very unusual example of somebody taking a common language, a common heritage, phrases, melodies, chords shared by anybody and saying, I'm going to rip this to pieces. No one will ever forget what I've done.

Speaker 3 (00:57:27):

So it's unusual. It's not common. It's really unusual. I mean, I think this might be another way of asking the same question in some ways, but from with different intentions. I mean, a lot of us who write poems think of poems as a kind of conversation with the Great Dead. And you described the song as a seance at one point. And also what you were just kind of referring to was the way that this song shifts in a kind of radical way from things that you actually can point to like the German War, to a kind of phantasmagoria of somebody seeing their own face across the river. And the relationship between the living and the dead seems to me very much at the heart of the blues tradition in a lot of ways. But it's also been at the heart of a lot of the writing that you've done, whether it's lipstick traces or even kind of parts of mystery train, but certainly in America, our prophecy and the Old Weird America.

Speaker 3 (00:58:19):

And I wonder if you would elaborate a little bit about how you view the dead and the living as the subjects that you keep returning to. It's a complicated question and it's bound up in the American ethos, which is sometimes stated and most often is not stated that it is the duty, it's the burden, it's the opportunity. It's the privilege of any American to invent his or her own life, to invent his or her own self, to invent it out of whole cloth, to take a new name to disguise yourself or simply to make something of yourself other than what anyone ever expected you to be. I love a comment that Alan Ginsburg's secretary made about Howell, and he said, Howell isn't just about taking people who were going to become lawyers and turning them into poets. Howell is about telling people that they are free. And it's about taking someone who nobody ever thought would amount to anything and inspiring him to become a lawyer.

Speaker 3 (00:59:45):

And so there is this sense in America that we have to invent ourselves. We have to make a mark. We have to leave the world different than we found That. Deeper than that is the sense that when you do that, when you invent yourself, maybe only in fantasy, you are founding, you are inventing America itself in yourself for the first time. And that's what everybody does. Everybody refound the country now with that kind of ethos, with that kind of sense, not being born again, but being born period. That is what we do with ourselves as Americans. Everything is about the present. Everything is about the future. There is no past. It has no moral authority. There's nothing pulling us back. The dead aren't real. The dead don't exist. And there's something that Charles Mingus said about the blues once where he said that he always thought the blues was the voice of slaves calling out to the living.

Speaker 3 (01:00:54):

And he said, but he finally understood what the blues really was, was about the wish to be dead yourself to escape from the world and join your ancestors. The blues is about reckoning. The blues is about saying death is always with us, that death is always a shadow. So it's an argument against the notion that our lives, that what we want and what we think is of any importance at all. And that's the idea of poets writing to other poets either directly or in imagination. That's one of the reasons I quoted Richard Hugo's degrees of gray in Phillipsburg, in feeling, in form, in mood, and in theme. It's very, very close to last kind words, blues. And if Dick ever heard Gehi Wiley, he would've known exactly what he was talking about. And if Gehi Wiley ever heard Richard Hugo, she would've known the same.

Speaker 3 (01:02:05):

There would've been no separation. You say, I got to meet this guy. And so many other people could be brought into that on my volition or on their own. I'd to ask you too about the radical instability of the song, because that's also something that I think people think was kind of invented in modernist poetry or maybe even in postmodern poetry. But what you were saying about the way that the eye works in there, the way the pronoun works, and just the instability of every aspect of this song. I mean, that also seems to me to be actually very characteristic of the blues tradition as well. Well, it is. Luke San was one of the first people to make the argument that blues is absolutely modernist. He refers to Charlie Patton as a high modernist, and he's really trying to make you sit up and he's saying, these people working on the same problems that 20th century artists were working on all over the world, whether they were dads, whether they were cubists, whether they were sound poets, people who understood that realism was no longer going to be able to tell the story as life as people were living it.

Speaker 3 (01:03:28):

And life as people were trying to deny it, that an orderly progression of events, an orderly progression of thoughts was no longer true. It was a falsehood that was not what life was about anymore. Life was about fragments. Life was about explosions. Life was about uncertainty. Life was about not having any idea what the next day would bring. Life was about the insufficiency of language to get across events that were too big for poems.

Speaker 3 (01:04:05):

When Theodore Adorno set after the Second World War and after the Nazi exterminations that after Hitler after the Nazis, poetry was obscene, the idea of making something beautiful in a world that was so ugly, I'm not sure that's really what he meant. And it's a question of translation. It's a question of, well, did you really say anything like that at all? But he might've been saying that poetry is insufficient. We need a new language, we need a new poetry that what we have, all the old tools, they're just not any good anymore. And that's what Blues was saying along with Picasso much earlier. Yeah. I was wondering if we could shift a little bit and talk about how you view your own criticism. Do you view it as in a tradition of criticism or in a tradition of nonfiction, or is it really all just writing to you, whether it's fiction or nonfiction or criticism? It's all just writing. It's all just a matter of finding the right word to put next to the word before or the word that's going to come after.

Speaker 3 (01:05:17):

Yeah, it is just writing. I mean, the writing, when you're really working or when I'm working it is the flow or the thrill or the fun or the surprise of making sentences and sentences often lead to the ideas. The sentences don't serve the ideas. You may have a feeling, you may have a notion and you're trying to put it into words, but if you do that, that's where the idea will come, and then you'll be off and chasing that idea. I don't ever write anything to prove a point or to convince anybody of anything. What about the shift to fiction in the last third of this piece? That's something that you've done a few times before, but it's not something you do all the time. I started doing that a few years ago, and I guess there are a couple of reasons for it, and mostly about blue singers.

Speaker 3 (01:06:22):

I mean, I've written about Skip James, I've written about Robert Johnson. I've written about Gehi Wally. I've invented alternate lives for these people lives that are within the realm of possibility. I mean, in my Geisha Wiley's story, I have her meeting Frankie Baker who really did live in Portland in the 1930s and forties and fifties, who really did go mad in 1952. I have her in Seattle stadium to see Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix at the age of 14 really was there. So there are all these things that are possible, although they presumably didn't happen. I guess that's because I feel confident enough about the material I'm writing about that I can play with it. I think that's all. I wonder if there are any questions from out here. Yeah,

Speaker 3 (01:07:37):

I've been asked to repeat questions. David Kirby was asking about, or simply talking about the intellectual and emotional, intellectual sympathy between Picasso and Brock and Gehi Wally. The way that you break things up, the way that you shuffled the pieces in this song, as people have listened to it and as people have performed it themselves, there are all kinds of words in it that are unstable. There is a line about, if I don't bring you flour, I'll bring you something meal. Well, it took a lot of digging and it took a lot of research and a lot of thinking and a lot of listening to come up with the notion that if I don't bring you flour, I'll bring you bolted meal. Bolted meal was like a cheaper flour substitute. But that's hard to hear. And that's a local reference. And that's not something a white middle class person in the year 2000 is necessarily going to know.

Speaker 3 (01:08:40):

I looked up at the depot, I went to the depot, I looked up at the sun, or is it sign blessed daughter, blessed daughter says the mother just before she dies, or is it precious daughter? And she says, don't you be so wild, or is it wise? And I can see my face from the other side. I mean, I would st

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