Alice Bishop
The Mississippi, April 2013

 

The Mississippi River is big. Really big. I knew it would be, but standing here on the bank, Arkansas is a long ways away.

‘The Mississippi River, you know it’s deep and wide. If I stand right here, I see my baby on the other side.’

I’m looking at the same view that Geeshie Wylie might have looked at. I think about what it must have been like to be a black, brilliant, itinerant musician in Mississippi, in the Delta, in the 30’s…. and a woman.

Then I think about what it’s like to be me, back in this magic place, for the third time. And I think… should we get married? He keeps asking. My feet stick in the famous Mississippi mud.

The water is high. It’s rained hard for days now. The cotton fields lie fallow. Awash. I watch the swirls and eddies and the floating debris.

Geeshie Wylie left few songs behind. Details of her life are scant. It’s thought she stabbed her husband to death in 1931. But two years later she was touring so I guess the courts must have thought Thornton Wylie got what was coming to him. Geeshie and her friend Elvie Thomas recorded for Paramount in 1930. Only six songs. Last Kind Word Blues is my favourite. It’s a leaving song.

‘I went to the depot, I looked up at the stars. Cried, if some train don’t come, there’ll be some walkin’ done.’

Abraham grew up in the Delta. Went to work in the cotton fields at the age of eight. His family was poor but his Mama always made sure he had shoes. He is kind and generous.

‘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.’

He lives just near THE Crossroads, where if you tarry too long at dusk these days, the locals are likely to take a potshot at you. Falling down on your knees to pray is certainly out of the question after dark.

Every day after work Abraham takes the duckwalk which runs along the Sunflower River, then he cuts across the river to his house over the old rail bridge, upon which the freight trains have long since ceased to run.

I meet him after work some days and he holds my hand as I carefully negotiate the way across. I try not to look down – looking at the river thirty metres below through the old track is dizzying. We sit down halfway across the bridge and watch the turtles lazily go about their turtle business, and the river slipping away. He retreats into his thoughts for a while, then turns to me and says, ‘I tell you one thing Boo…’ He always calls me Boo. ‘I tell you one thing…God is good.’ I don’t believe in God, but in that moment I agree with him because it’s easy to believe in God in this peaceful place.

I never thought I’d meet anyone like him and he never thought he’d meet anyone like me. So here we are, trying to put our lives together. But it’s harder than we both thought. I run away to Tupelo and look at Elvis’ house for a few days to think. Geeshie comes for the ride. When I come back, Abraham and I decide to make the most of now, and trust everything to fate – and his God.

It’s raining again. The long drive to Memphis airport, then Elvis souvenirs as far as the eye can see. I think of Abraham’s last kind words… ‘You take good care of yourself now, Boo. You know I always love you.’

‘What you do to me baby, it never gets outta me. I may not see you again after I cross that deep, blue sea.’

 

©Alice Bishop.

The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie by John Jeremiah Sullivan – New York Times

 

Alice is a freelance theatre director and writer. She has been obsessed by the blues ever since the age of five when she heard her father's Leadbelly records for the first time and wondered why the singer sounded so sad.