“All folk was once somebody’s pop”

by DoMinorEffect

Since David Foster Wallace sadly took his life, there are several names mentioned as his heirs. One of them is John Jeremiah Sullivan, and not just because of his triple name.

Sullivan, as Wallace, writes about living in the modern world and contemporary culture. His assays deal with the life in America, and mainly related to music. He is being published in very well-known magazines, such as GQ, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine. Last year he published a book, named “Pulphead“, that holds 14 assays that had been published over the years. One of the assays is “Unknown Bards” who tells a story about one old blues song, lost recordings and music research.

It all started at the end of 98′, when Sullivan worked as a junior editor at the Oxford American Magazine. He got a task from his supervisors to check the lyrics of an old song from 1930 that some of its words can not be understood. The song is “Last Kind Words Blues” and the singer of it is Geeshie Wiley, an anonymous musician that no details are known about her, not even the right way to spell her name.

The song starts with a three clear verses:

[1] The last kind words I heard my daddy say/ Lord, the last kind words I heard my daddy say

[2] If I die, if I die in the German war/ I want you to send my body, send it to my mother, lord

[3] If I get killed, if I get killed, please don’t bury my soul/ I p’fer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole

The problem starts in the forth verse (1:18 at the video). Sullivan cannot understand what Wiley sings in it:

When you see me comin’, look ‘cross the rich man’s field, / If I don’t bring you flowers, I’ll bring you [a boutonniere?]

Sullivan doesn’t understand Wiley and guesses “boutonniere” (a flower worn in a buttonhole). But this guess is meaningless and does not relate to the song’s spirit.

It’s pre-google times and in order to decode the lyrics one needs to make some effort. Sullivan knows he can’t return to his editors and say he failed. So he starts looking for someone who knows anything about blues. He contacted John Fahey.

Fahey, then 60, blues guitarist, got no clue. He asks Sullivan for some time to call friends and ask them but after a while he admits they all know nothing about those lyrics. Sullivan gets into his car and starts listening to the song over and over again. Suddenly he hears at the second sentence the word “bolt”. He returns to his office, open the OED, Oxford dictionary, and started to look for combinations of using that word. Eventually he finds a quote from 1398 with old English that solves the mystery:

“The floure of the mele, whan it is bultid and departed from the bran”.

So Wiley didn’t sing “flowers”, but “flour”:

“If I don’t bring you flour, I’ll bring you bolted meal.”

Sullivan calls back to Fahey with his new hypothesis, and Fahey tells him that his guess is very reasonable: during the civil war, when the flour ran out, people used bolted cornmeal.

Today all this process would last less than a minute of search over the internet. Sullivan would have never met Fahey. But that fortunately didn’t happen and the acquaintance with the bluesist deepened his connection with that genre and he started following blues anthologies that been published in the states. With this deepening he get to know blues collectors, one of them is a blues historian who worked as a pest-control man who goes from door to door. He asked the tenants, “need your house sprayed?”, no, “got any weird old records in the attic?”. That way he broadened his collection and maybe saved some records from oblivion.

The assay continues with exploring the blues through collectors, researchers and musicians, and looses tension. But the interesting thing with the people being told about is that the music they are looking for – and they do not know precisely what is it – must be found with someone. “All folk was once somebody’s pop”, its been said in the assay and they are looking for their lost music with the people – sometimes they find records and sometimes and musician themselves. They know that if they won’t find it, it probably be gone forever.

(“Unknown Bards” can be read fully here:pdf ; “Last Kind Words” can be read here)