Rhiannon Giddens: Cultural Curiousity

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Not much is known about Geeshie Wiley, the woman who recorded “Last Kind Word Blues” 85 years ago. Scratch that. Almost nothing is known about her at all. Until recently, she had no name beyond what is possibly a nickname. We did not know where or when she lived or died. There are no photos, few stories. What we do know is that she and another woman named Elvie Thomas recorded a handful of songs for Paramount Records in 1930, then slipped back into a particularly American obscurity. But what a song she recorded: “Last Kind Word Blues” is a beautifully bleak tune about the persistent nearness of death, sung in a voice that emerges from the chipped acetate and the decades of scratches and nicks with all of its steely determination intact. “If I get killed, please don’t bury my soul,” Wiley sings. “I prefer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole.”

The tune—and the woman behind it—has inspired a great deal of curiosity over years: Terry Zweig included it in his 1994 documentary Crumb, Amanda Petrusich mused over its obscurity in her 2014 book Do Not Sell At Any Price, essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan uncovered valuable new information about Wiley in a long piece last year in the New York Times, and now Rhiannon Giddens has covered it on her solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn. She knew the song well, even if she can’t recall when she first heard it—perhaps as a music student at Oberlin or maybe as a founding member of the folk act the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In the early 2010s, she covered “Last Kind Word Blues” on tour with the Kronos Quartet, although they did not record it.

Sullivan’s article “made me listen to it again,” she says, and this time she could hear it with new ears, identify more closely with the narrator, and comprehend more clearly the implications of its woeful lyrics. “We were looking for one more song for this record, and I got this email from T Bone [Burnett, who produced]. All it said—just one sentence—was, ‘How about “Last Kind Word?”” It was like the skies opened up. That song had been teasing and teasing and teasing, and then when it was finally the right time, I was primed.”

Giddens’ version begins with a strummed electric guitar, stark and speckled with distortion; someone beats on what sounds like a tin can. A mandolin enters, twisting itself in knots, and then her voice slices across the arrangement, sharply expressive and bold as a brass instrument. It’s the voice of a woman who has studied, among other musical traditions, opera and Gaelic folk. It’s the voice of a woman who is trying to erase nearly a century of time between herself and Wiley. “It’s an amazingly strong song, so there’s no need to update it at this time in its life. Let’s just cover it and maybe new people will hear it. Then maybe somebody else will take it that next step someday.”

The 10 songs that follow “Last Kind Word Blues” similarly spring from a creative empathy and a cultural curiosity. Giddens covers songs written by or associated with female artists, and her range is remarkable: She delivers a version of Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” that sounds like Laurel Canyon ca. 1970. Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” takes on the ambience of a rural nightclub. “Black Is the Color,” a signature tune for Nina Simone, struts to a beatboxed rhythm and a rambling harmonica solo. It’s a diverse album, but not ostentatiously so. “I’m really interested in the idea of so many genres of American music, which really do come from this one root,” she explains. “They’re all very different, but they’re all related and they should be able to work together.”

There is a bit of musical theater to Tomorrow Is My Turn, as these very different, yet fundamentally similar songs allow Giddens to inhabit various corners of America. Her role is as much actress as it is singer. “I did opera for a few years, so the idea of inhabiting a role crystalized during that time. That was fascinating to me, the idea of crawling into a style or a song or a voice and just inhabiting that world. You lose yourself in it.”

Just who are these roles Giddens is playing? They are all American women—not just the singers we associate with the songs, although they are obviously present on the stage. Rather, Tomorrow Is My Turn is about the regular folks whose experiences the songs document in some way or another. It’s about the Geeshie Wileys, whose experience may be devalued but whose accomplishments are undeniable. “I read a lot of history, so I know a lot about the struggles women had to go through, whether it was racial violence or just being able to have birth control. There’s a lot of fight in these women, and sometimes they’ve put it in their songs. They were paving the way for somebody like me to do what I do.”

The challenge in such a bold undertaking, of course, is how to keep yourself from getting lost in the role. During the process of gathering and recording songs for the album, Giddens struggled to push her own voice to the forefront—to interpret rather than playact, to make an album rather than a museum diorama. “It’s a dangerous thing, because you don’t want people to think you’re copying someone. I never wanted to be a carbon copy of a spirituals singer or a Gaelic singer. I’m not a woman from Scotland in 1915, and I’m not a woman from Alabama in 1902. I am who I am. I couldn’t have made this record 10 years ago or even five years ago, because I don’t think I had the same maturity of voice.”

Or, as she sings on “Angel City,” “I am found where I was lost, I am closer to free.” It is, fittingly, both the last song on the album and her only songwriting credit, as though Giddens sees herself as part of a long tradition that stretches back to a very different time in America. “I’m not a vain person and I was more than happy not to have any originals on the record, but it made sense in the way the story was shaping up. When we finally got the sequencing down, with that song at the end, everything made sense. It became a real emotional thing.”

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