October 27, 2013

Revisiting Last Kind Words

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.

August 10, 2013

No metaphor

Witnessed an intense drama today.  Heading up the hill where the trail curves up from the creek into the woods, I stopped at the old bench to catch my breath and have a sip of water.  In a patch of sunlight beyond the other side of the trail, I don't know how many dozens of feet from where I sat, in an open area between the trees a few times my height above the ground, I noticed a large dark butterfly fluttering fast but not going anywhere.  As I looked at it, my eyes gradually focused on the faint strands of the web in which it was caught.  I couldn't quite see the whole thing, but it had to've been a damned big web, because it was a very big butterfly.  Amazing, too, how strong a spider's web is, because that big butterfly was putting up a crazed struggle to break free.  I got up from the bench and walked down the trail a bit to a point where I could see it better.  From that angle, my eye was caught by something a ways above the web-- a little blob that was illuminated bright acid-y, lime-y green by the sun.  Hanging on an anchor-line that I couldn't see was the spider.  After another minute or two, the butterfly suddenly stopped its flapping and hung suspended at the bottom of the web with its wings spread wide. The spider began to crawl down the anchor-line towards the web, which the butterfly must have felt because it began its violent fluttering and pulling again.  This routine of rest, advance, response went on one more time before the spider reached the center of the web.  The spider stopped there, the butterfly stopped as well and hung deathly quiet for a while, then suddenly went crazy again and I watched as the spider turned back and began climbing back up the web, back up the anchor-line, back to the spot where I first noticed it.  Even when the butterfly stopped and hung for the longest minutes yet, the spider just sat, as if it knew it wasn't yet time.  I wondered how many other people would stop to watch something of this sort.  How many would even realize what was going on?  At a glance, all you'd see was a butterfly fluttering.  How many would look long enough to realize it was trapped?  If you didn't focus your eyes just right, you wouldn't even see the web and the spider, just the crazily flapping butterfly and the trees of the woods beyond it.  I looked up at the spider again and began to think of patience, of how wonderful and powerful a thing it is to have, and how simultaneously horrible and frightening it can be if you're the butterfly trapped and panicking to be free.  But perhaps that's anthropomorphizing a bit too much.  Finally, when the butterfly went into convulsive flapping so violent that it caused the spider all the way up on its anchor-line to bounce around in the air, I turned away and headed up the trail.

This is not a metaphor for anything. It's just life.  Just something I saw.


August 4, 2013

What revolves around what?

Sitting on the wall above the Potomac River at the base of the Rumsey Monument in Shepherdstown (where I've ruminated before), watching a pair of black vultures sitting on top of the world (quite literally) preening each other, I thought of something from an episode I recently watched of the BBC series, Sherlock (episode 4, A Scandal in Belgravia, to be precise)-- In his blog of their adventures together, Dr. Watson exposes Holmes' ignorance that the earth revolves around the sun.  Holmes' lack of this knowledge becomes a source of incredulous amusement to those around him, but he aggravatedly demands "What does it matter?"  As he explains to Watson, his brain is like a hard drive and he cannot clutter it with data that is useless to his purposes.  He may have had that information in his hard drive at one point but, if so, he'd long ago deleted it. He has a point.  What, indeed, is the value of such information?  I'm sure many intelligent, educated folks out there would cite all that we've learned about the expanse of space and how we may end up needing to live on another planet some day so we'd better learn all we can about them but, really, for the average person, how does that impact their day to day living?  If a child were born tomorrow and the parents decided to keep him ignorant of the fact of the earth's rotation around the sun, say, home-schooled him and contrived to keep the information from him as far into adulthood as possible, would his life be any less fulfilled, less interesting, less meaningful, or less productive than any of us who are cognizant of this astronomical fact?  Hell, there are tribes of isolated indigenous people who are unaware of the workings of the solar system as we know them.  And yet those people live, love, laugh, create and procreate and function within their own societies just as ably as any of us who are supposedly more advanced.  

I saw a film this afternoon that was a very complex exploration of the very complex subjects of love, relationships, family, and communication.  Our knowledge of the earth's rotation around the sun did not come up at any point in the film and seems to have no bearing on the matters it addressed.  So, what impact does a basic awareness of the workings of the solar system have on a basic awareness of the workings of human nature?  Which of the two is more pertinent to daily life and, thus, more important information to store in our mental hard drives?

Another example--  Last weekend, I stood in a "sky meadow", a huge section of steep hillside in a state park in Virginia that farmers had cleared of forest ages ago for grazing their livestock.  The field is now covered with wildflowers of all kinds and the trail transects growth as tall as my shoulders. First I saw a couple of butterflies-- Huge yellow, black &/or pale blue ones, then little speckly orange ones, then tiny little blue/brown ones.  Next thing I know, I'm looking around at what had to be a couple hundred of them.  I have never seen so many butterflies in one place in my life.  It was so gorgeous I just stood there for the longest time with a big ol' fool grin on my face.  In moments like that, what difference does an awareness that the earth revolves around the sun matter?  The sun is in the sky, we are standing on the earth, the butterflies are fluttering in between, and that's enough.  Isn't it? 

Disclaimer:  I do not state anywhere above that I believe learning about the solar system is unnecessary or irrelevant, so please don't make that assumption.  This was all just random rumination, the sort of stuff that clutters up my own mental hard drive. Worth thinking about, though.  I think.


April 22, 2013

Record Store Day Pilgrimage, and then some

Got up at 6am last Friday to get ready and go to work, just like any other day, except for the back of the car being full of a bag of clothes, a cooler full of Cock’n’Bull ginger beer, a sleeping bag, and a folding chair.  Left work a bit after 3:30 in the afternoon to hit the road.  Got caught up in the creepy-crawly traffic on the DC Metropolitan Area’s notorious parking lot, er, I mean route 66 (no relation to the celebrated Mother Road, more like an evil doppelganger of that highway) and the backup from DC to Gainesville, VA ended up adding an hour to my total drive time.  Just past Gainesville, the overcast sky began dropping buckets of rain so thick that fellow drivers were putting their hazard lights on. Pulled off route 81 just after the rain ended around 7pm for a plate of meatloaf and lima beans at a truckstop diner.  Back on the road, started yawning about 9:00 or so.  Around 10, I began to get that goggle-eyed feeling where you can't tell whether your eyes are open or not and you think you might be getting ready to start hallucinating.  By 11, no amount of slapping myself in the face was keeping my eyelids up, so I pulled off at a gas station a little ways before the Tennessee border to stretch my legs and get some fresh air.   Back in the car, blew a kiss at the huge guitar (photo from a previous occasion) across the highway from the TN Welcome Center as I crossed the state line, then set Freedom At 21 on repeat at full volume and before long was flyin’ fast and high.  (That 5 Hour Energy stuff kicks in damned quick, y’know?)

At midnight, route 40 past Knoxville, TN was just as ugly as I remembered it being in the daylight three years ago.  Around 1am, the road emptied out and other cars became few and far between, and my little Honda ate up a lotta lonely miles under a moonlit sky.  Finally, around 3am, I rolled into Nashville and pulled up at Mecca, er, I mean Tent City, er, I mean Third Man Records to join the dozens of fellow pilgrims already camped out along 7th Avenue South.

I was here for Record Store Day, in the year 2013, the year that Jack White was elected Record Store Day Ambassador, only a week shy of the third anniversary of my first visit to this place, when I drove from DC to Memphis for my very first experience of Jack on-stage and then swung through Nashville on the way home so that I could also experience TMR for the first time.  That was a damned good trip.  So much has changed since then...

The wait in the wee hours of the morning went well.  I don’t know how people were able to sleep, but Tent City was silent.  It was very cold, but not miserably so.  The couple of folks who arrived right after me were just as wired as I was, so we huddled in our sleeping bags and chatted quietly about Third Man and music while we waited for the sun to come up, and then for a handful more hours while the line continued to grow and we waited for the event to begin at 11am.

A cheer went up at the beginning of the line when The Door opened--

And then we waited some more. Sales of the limited edition Record Store Day release of the White Stripes album, Elephant, were in TMR's Blue Room performance space, taking place at the same time as performances by a couple of artists on the Third Man roster. Sales of other limited vinyl and some nifty new novelty merchandise were in the shop on the other side of the building. If you wanted to try to get everything, you had to make it through one looooooooooooooong, slooooooooooooooow line and then go join another, but if you wanted to see the live performances you'd end up farther back in the other looooooooooooooong, slooooooooooooooow line, and if you wanted to get something to eat or drink you had to ask someone to hold your space in line while you ran to get into that line (fortunately the food lines were short'n'quick).  And if you were one of the many, many folks who wanted to avail yourself of Third Man's latest addition (more on that coming up), then there was yet another line for you.  For me, at least, the lines were only part of the chaos.

Over the last three years, I’ve become involved in the Jack White fan community to a fairly high degree. It’s been almost impossible not to. I want to know what’s going on, so I spend a lot of time on two Jack-related message boards and other places on the 'net for both information and that phenomenon called "social networking".  I’ve been to so many shows and met so many people, some of whom I’m now very happy to think of as long-distance friends.  But, as always with me and other people, this has led to drama.  Much of it is my own fault, as I’ve a tendency to unconsciously try to take charge of things, to be the one in the know, to lead.   It’s a characteristic that has served me well at work, as I take assignments and run with them, learn whatever I can about the ins and outs of the project to keep it on track, and to get what I need from others to get things done.  In a social situation, like a music fan community or just a group of friends, it can lead to conflict.  Which it recently has, with my level of obnoxiousness being brought to my attention just a few days prior to this weekend’s pilgrimage.  So I was tense going into this whole thing, knowing I was going to be seeing people who were becoming fed up with me.  Fortunately, there were others there with whom I’ve not been so involved and I was able to hang out with them for most of the day and keep a low profile.  In addition to that was the speculation and expectation running through much of the crowd.  Everyone knew that Jack was there that day, though he'd so far remained within the inner sanctum of the building.  Pretty much everyone (hard-core vinyl collectors and flippers may have been less concerned) was brimming with anticipation for him to hit that stage in the Blue Room and give us a taste of what had brought us all there.  At the very least, as Record Store Day Ambassador, folks expected he’d make some sort of proclamation.  It created an edgy atmosphere, as some folks were hopeful but relaxed, while others became quite angry that he might just blow us off.  As for Jack, a couple of the times that he was visible during the afternoon gave me the impression that his biggest priority was the latest addition to the TMR Novelty Lounge-- A vintage record booth in which, for $15, anyone can "not only record your own vinyl record, but send it to anyone, anywhere in the world to share a song, poem, or private message with".

All of the social consternation and event confusion and will-he-or-won't-he expectation created a feeling of high school drama that swirled as an undercurrent to the whole day and brought me to the conclusion that I need to extricate myself a bit.  It begins to sour the pleasure and meaning I get from the music.  This has happened before and caused me to turn away from music that I loved, but I will not let it happen with Jack’s music.  He’s opened too many doors for me and what I get from his music and all of the music that he’s introduced me to is more important than knowing what’s going on behind the curtains and being a part of whatever “scene” any of us fans might be privileged to be a part of (or that we imagine we are a part of).  I’ll still keep track of what he’s up to because what he does is so important and inspiring and there's no way I'll give up any shows or events of this sort that I can afford to get to, but it’s time for me to take one or two steps back from the community, out of the drama and away from the temptation to take any sort of lead.  

Now, lest it seem that I had a miserable soap opera of a day, rest assured that there was much fun as well.  It’s impossible to be within sight of the black, red, yellow, and blue walls of Third Man Records and not become at least a little giddy with excitement.  At one point, a camera man working for PBS overheard me talking about my 11-plus hour drive from DC and asked whether he could interview me for an upcoming documentary about the history of vinyl records.  The 90 minute show will apparently go all the way back to sheet music and from there follow our desire to save music for posterity, with a focus on the vinyl format.  He wanted me to talk about why I’d been compelled to travel such a long distance to Third Man and what it is that makes vinyl records so special.  I feel like I completely babbled and, of course, can now sit here and think of so many things I should’ve said that didn’t come to mind impromptu, but it doesn’t matter because what I did say will probably end up on a cutting room floor anyway (Note: Need to watch for the show to come on ‘cause it sounds like it’s going to be very informative and interesting).  What matters is that what’s going on at Third Man is being noticed and I tried in that brief interview to sum up why it should be—It’s their passion, their contagious excitement for what they do, their love of history, their kid-in-a-candy-store joy for technology both old and sometimes new, their driving compulsion to always be making something, anything, unique and special that’s either never existed before or that used to exist but doesn’t any longer, all for the purpose of getting people to be involved with music.  And the fact that the music, that nebulous, intangible thing that affects us emotionally and neurologically in ways that I don’t think will ever be fully understood, is all wrapped up in tangible, interactive forms makes it a heady concoction that can be as intoxicating as any drug.  And a damned sight healthier for us.  It’s this that I want to experience, that I will travel hours and hours to feed off of and then carry the feeling of back home with me.  All the rest is either just icing or, in some cases, bits of burned crumbs on the bottom of the pan.  Give me that yellow, black, and white cake, with or without extra icing, and I’ve got all that I need.

And, finally, here is one of the other big reasons that I was so eager to make that long drive to Third Man-- To experience one of the most visible signs of their sense of whimsy, a bidet installed on the ceiling of the men's room as a functioning shower. I couldn't reach the controls, but was able to jump high enough to smack the upside-down towel.

Photo by Daniel Kitching

April 18, 2013

The art (?) of conversation

You know how some paintings are obvious masterpieces?  A perfect unity of color, line, perspective, and form culminating in something that provokes, inspires, and moves people.  And how some other paintings are just a big jumbled mess that makes you wonder why the artist ever put paint to canvas, or that, even worse, actually offends?  Conversation is a lot like that.  Chris Cornell once wrote in The Day I Tried to Live, "The words you say never seem to live up to the ones inside your head." Those words resonated with me, and have become even more apropos now that so many of my conversations take place via the written word here on the interwebz. Pretty much everyone realizes the disconnect-- Without tone of voice and facial expression to help with conveying the meaning of your words, you're at the mercy of them being interpreted in a myriad of unexpected ways, no matter how carefully you try to choose them. 

For example, you can be happily conversing in a chatroom when someone mentions what they're eating. Completely off the top of your head, you type "I haven't eaten that since I was a kid". On your end of the internet, it's nothing more than a statement of fact and you're thinking "Wow, it's been a long time since I had that" and the words you both typed and thought are accompanied by nostalgic memories from childhood. On the other end of the internet, though, there are people thinking "Wow, she just insulted that person's taste in food. She must think she's better than people who eat that." How does that happen? 

On another occasion, you could write something with a lighthearted, joking intent, with a mischievous grin on your face as you type, only to find out that people on the receiving end are deciding that you're a disrespectful troll hiding behind the anonymity of the internet. How does that happen? 

I often wonder if people interpret the written words they read in a tone that they themselves might use, depending on what their own mood is at the moment, instead of stopping to think about the person who wrote the words, and what they know about that person. You'd think that enough of us have experienced this phenomenon to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to not assume the other's intent quite so quickly. Perhaps we're all too busy multi-tasking. Or, perhaps, that fatal flaw of faceless, voiceless communication will never be completely overcome.  How on earth did people handle this sort of thing back in the days of letter writing?

On the flipside, there are also times when this weird disconnect can be intentionally manipulated, such as when you sit at your desk in a state of miserable depression and, by scattering a few exclamation points and smiley emoticons through your words, convince the people on the other end of the internet that you're actually quite cheerful. Funny, that. 

I don't know about you, but I don't know what to say. I don't think I ever will. 

February 24, 2013

Another day at the museum: The BMA, 2/24/13

Cozy cold marble lions,
Buds like pussy-willow rabbit's foots.
Sun's gold not yet summer molten, 
Lazing in a city statue garden.
Temple, fortress, circled stairs inside.
Warm marble rings,
Reds and blacks to weep over.
Sounds with eight minute silence.
Looking for meaning behind creation.
Wanting to touch creation--
Would it convey meaning,
or only tactile pleasing?
The sun's golden warmth is intangible,
but elevates just as much. 

February 18, 2013

Coming back from lunch just now

The skinniest trannie on the face of the earth, dressed to the nines in an immaculate navy-blue wool coat with fur collar, a fur hat, and huge sunglasses, was making her way along the sidewalk towards me as I was coming back from lunch just now.  Walking very gingerly in matching navy pumps, as if her little toothpick ankles could snap at any moment, holding her arms around herself like she was freezing (it is very cold in DC today).  As I got closer she stopped, gave me a little smile with perfectly painted lips, and wagged an empty Starbuck's cup towards me.  Took me half a block to realize what she was trying to communicate.  I think I should think that it was a heart-breaking sight, but I'm not sure. 

February 10, 2013

A White weekend: Looking up at vultures and back over three years of song

Spent this weekend celebrating the third anniversary of my White weekend.  Drove many, many roads in between West Va and Baltimore. Listened to many, many glorious songs.  In between those, spent some time in woods and fields and saw many wondrous things.  

Picked up a cardinal's feather and marveled at how it shifted from rust to scarlet depending on how the sunlight hit it.   

Saw a lady bug crawling sluggishly in the leaf duff on the trail, surprising on such a cold day. 

A crow flew overhead and muttered a "grokgrokgrok" at me around an unidentifiable object clamped in its beak. 

Was startled by a trio of grey-headed black vultures that swooped up from a ditch not ten yards away and soared in loops above me for a minute or so, one seemingly harassing another and the third just along for the ride. 

Stopped on the way home for something I've never seen the like of before-- Dozens of turkey vultures- hell, it had to have been at least a hundred or more- lazily wheeling and whirling over a Victorian-era train station.  I've seen those giant flocks of small birds that resemble clouds rising and shifting in the air in perfect sync, but I've never seen anywhere near so many vultures in one spot.  The sight forced me to stop, get out, and lie back against the hood of the car to watch.  When the huge birds were angled just right in flight, the 5:00pm sun shining up from below turned the white undersides of their wings golden and they looked just like late autumn maple seedpods, those winged whirlygigs that spin to the ground like helicopters.  Then, ever so gradually, the vultures just... dispersed, and were gone. 

Drove past one of the best street names ever--  Trackless Sea Court.  Would be a wonderful thing to live in a place that was a constant reminder of the seemingly infinite expanse of the ocean.

Yesterday, despite such arresting sights and experiences, the music was foremost in my perceptions.  Today, frustration interfered and kept distracting me from the songs I was trying to celebrate.  Just couldn't get a particularly troubling idea out of my head--  When is indifference truly indifferent, and when it is a mask for uglier things?  And in the latter situation, is it actually a mask... or is it a defense mechanism?  

People make me sad as often as they make me happy, but there is one thing that I don't think will ever, ever fail to make me glad--

Here's to many more years, Jack. Thank you for everything.

January 27, 2013

No idea what to call it

Old, old photo.  Same stream, but not shot on today's ramble.

Arabesques of smoke curl through the air between me and the view of a stream making its way between banks of snow...  and I don't know where to take that from there.  My thoughts don't flow as smoothly as the stream.  They're frozen like the ice that skims the edges, and as vaporous as the wisps of smoke that dissipate before me.  Time to move on.