Some songs never go out of me... I first wrote about this one three years ago, and today a friend shared an article with me that discusses it in depth.
Back in the winter of 1998/99, John Jeremiah Sullivan spent an evening on the phone with John Fahey trying to decipher the words of Geeshie Wiley's song Last Kind Words Blues for an article being written by Greil Marcus. In the more recent Harper's Magazine article linked above, Sullivan explains how interpreting the words of the song went hand-in-hand with interpreting the meaning of it. Sullivan's perspective is that it's a song about a woman pining for her "ghost-lover" and his explanation of various lines certainly encourages a very eerie feel to the song. But there are places where Sullivan definitely got some words wrong, for instance in the second verse where he wrote that she sings "... send my money... to my mother-in-law." Every website I've found and my own ears insist that Geeshie sang "...send my body", after which she pleads "...don't bury my soul... leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole." Hard to imagine someone's mother-in-law in Mississippi getting away with leaving a body out for the buzzards, but the imagery is still compelling. But which makes more sense? Sending money to the mother-in-law and just leaving the body out on that battlefield in Germany? Or sending the body back home for the mother-in-law to tend to according to the singer's daddy's last wish? The former seems to be more logical, but the latter definitely seems to be what Geeshie intended. Little debates like this are one of the many things that make songs like this so captivating over so many decades.
Near as I can tell from Sullivan's article, searching the internet (good discussion of the song found here), and listening, these seem to me to be the correct lyrics--
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-in-law
If I get killed, if I get killed, please don't bury my soul
I cry just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole
When you see me comin', look 'cross the rich man's field
If I don't bring you flour, I'll bring you bolted meal
I went to the depot, I looked up at the sun
Cried, some train don't come, Lord, be some walkin' done
My mama told me, just before she died
Lord, blessed daughter, don't you be so wild
The Mississippi river, you know it's deep and wide
I can stand right here, see my babe from the other side
What you do to me baby it never gets outta me
I believe I see you after cross the deep blue sea
Dex Romweber's and Jack White's 2009 version takes some definite liberties with the song. Every site I've found when searching for the lyrics to their version posts instead the words to Geeshie's version. But there are some distinct differences--
The lyric that gave Sullivan and Fahey the hardest time is the same that I've seen most debated at internet forums-- The second line of the fourth verse, in which she sings "If I don't bring you flour, I'll bring you bolted meal." Early interpretations apparently thought she sang of flowers and a boutonniere, but Sullivan's research convinced him that she was instead referring to corn meal. It's easy to see why Fahey was skeptical of Sullivan's idea, as most internet dictionary sites bury the definition of "bolt" in terms of sifting near the bottom of the page. Yet Jack and Dex sing of something entirely different being brought across that "rich-land field", something even less intelligible than what Geeshie sang thanks to a crescendo in the music, and with a lot more syllables that definitely seem to end with the word "steel", rather than "meal". What the heck are they singing about?
There's also their change to the sixth verse, "...When you see the dawn, wake up and let a man grow wise", which seems to be a nicely worded attempt at gender reversal to avoid singing "blessed daughter". If that's the case and the intent was to change the perspective of the entire song from female to male, it makes a significant difference-- Is the "daddy" of the first verse now a father instead of a lover/husband? And that leads to...
The switch they made that, to me and presumably to John Jeremiah Sullivan, has a more profound affect on the tone of the song is a very subtle one. In the next to last verse, Sullivan wrote of the distinctly "spooky" feel created by Geeshie singing "I can stand right here and see my baby from the other side". Sullivan's take on it is that the song's narrator is "slipping out of [her] body... and joining [him] on the other side". The "other side", of course, is across a river more spiritual than physical. But when Dex and Jack sing "I can stand right here and see my baby on the other side", are they changing the longing of that line from spiritual back into something more temporal? I don't know which of them made the decision to do this or why, but it initially surprised me coming from both Dex and Jack. Both have spiritual leanings, and Jack's love of metaphor would seem to make the metaphysical interpretation more appealing to him than the concrete one.
But if the "daddy" at the beginning of the song is now the narrator's father, rather than the ghost-lover who died in the war (as per Sullivan's intepretation), then who is singing about whom on the other side of that river? Is the song now sung by that ghost-lover? If that's the case, then the river once more becomes a spiritual one, with him longing for his living lover who still stands on the temporal side.
As Geeshie's words and meanings show, it can take some digging, through one's own brain as much as anywhere else, to make the interpretation of a song come alive. I'm grateful to my friend for handing me such a sturdy spade this afternoon and causing me to dig more deeply into both versions of this one.