The Mississippi River is a tapestry of waterways and swamps from which the strangest legends in the nation have mingled and emerged, bluesmen whose music has created madmen and giants in nearly every other music industry. The mythic, the cryptic, the brutal flows from the speakers when the eerie, offset notes of the oldest country blues ballads are replayed like some anthropologist’s artifact that might conceal a curse known only to those who listen too closely.
The first day I heard Geeshie Wiley, a spell was cast. The mysterious singer dates back further and deeper into the swamps than most musicians, and her music has crept into my own musical stylings: the unusual chord combinations, the unnerving melodies, the grim lyrics—this is the Mississippi delta. Robert Johnson might have gone to a Mississippi crossroads to meet the devil, but when he ran from the hell hounds the only place he had a prayer of losing them was in the morass of the perpetually shifting waterways in Louisiana, where Leadbelly was said to have outstripped police hounds tracking him, where voodoo masters lurk down forgotten New Orleans streets.
Houses with overgrown yards and Spanish moss touching the roofs were lined up like the suburbs of the forgotten as I stood waist-deep in humidity, listening to the deep shadows and sunken cypresses that beckoned in the distance. Passing through Baton Rouge several days before, I had ventured further down the Mississippi delta to satisfy a curiosity about this strange wasteland of swamps and channels where wandering anglers in trawlers float by like Charon escorting the damned into the underworld, where souls get lost and wait to die but cannot because there is too much water, too much life, and autumn never arrives.
Engulfed in the uncanny that Geeshie wove into lyrics about fathers vanishing in World War I which, like this place, no one escaped, at least not in spirit, I gradually lost touch with humanity’s meaningless methods of measuring time. The place I once occupied was fast fading and the delta made me wonder if the civilization I left behind even still existed or if it had quietly eroded when the poison of humanity leaked into the languorous atmosphere, creating a horizon in which the liquid orange sun floated uncertainty, a sun that might be rising or setting. A little more complicated than just losing my place, I was at the mercy of the malaise, trying to remember the last kind words my own dying parents had told me.
I knew that if I stayed too long, I would not be able to retrace my steps and, as the river imperceptibly crept past me, I wondered if the water were flowing or the land were sliding out to sea. Either way, it was impossible to tell if I was leaving the labyrinthine bayous or just sinking deeper into them, if the sun was rising or the world was sinking. Like Geeshie, I waited at the depot for a train that might never come.
Superhuman boasts are part of the Louisiana blues, but not all of them are spurious, and many bite of an irony that is lost on urban listeners. When Leadbelly said he could pick a bale of cotton, he was referring to a herculean task, but a feat which he might have been able to accomplish given his legendary strength and the oppressors that drove him.
Johnson sang about gambling so hard he won a girlfriend but lost her back to the same man, Blind Blake sang about his legendary “Diddie Wa Diddie” that got him excommunicated from church, Alan Lomax recorded convicts singing about bulldogs whose bark rolled like thunder, and Blind Willie McTell sang about a dying crapshooter named Jessie who had an epic funeral procession in Atlanta with every bootlegger and prostitute and gambler within a hundred miles. But Geeshie’s feat was one of vision.
When confronted with her own mortality, she begs listeners not to bury her in the earth but to lay her corpse in the wilderness so that the vultures could eat her in a ritual reminiscent of indigenous rites rather than Western burials, a ritual that might finally set her soul free and let her see the world. There is something of that ancient mystique in this place that will never pass away, an eerie gaze that sees beyond what others see, a sight that has escaped observations and measurements, for Geeshie claimed to have stood on one bank of the Mississippi and seen the other side, something no less improbable than the boasts of epic bluesmen or the very existence of the river itself, for the river makes its own bed and builds up banks until the bayous drain and sink below sea level. None of this is supposed to be here.
Yet, as I stood on the banks of the estuaries where the mighty Mississippi loses its way, I found that it was hard to leave. The temptation to abandon all else and stay in this place was strong, the impulse to embrace oblivion and jettison life, its betrayals and lies, to spend sunsets trying to make sense of the past and worry no more about the future, finger-picking on the porch with Mississippi John Hurt until fingers blister, and afterward fall silent as the ripples smooth out behind meandering anglers, shadows of trees become motionless where trains have passed, and wayfaring strangers find that they have become part of that place that should not exist.
But one day, when we pass on, we will all soar above the treetops with the vultures and pelicans, able to see what others will never see, standing on one bank of the Mississippi and seeing the other side, just as the field laborers sang about seeing the other side of Jordan.
Though I left the Mississippi delta, the place still haunts me whenever I hear Geeshie’s melodic dirge.