a nightmare

Just dreamed I was working at a mattress abattoir/factory in some long ago time and place. The mattresses were somehow living organisms. I had to use a guillotine and also sometimes a huge cleaver, if the guillotine didn’t slice all the way through, and chop them cleanly and very systematically, blood pooling on the rushes underfoot. Every blow I dealt nauseated me to tears. There was a foreman forcing me to speed up all the time. There was nothing else to the dream but this enforced, repetitive violence, and all I could do to try to make it better was to do the awful hacking with more precision.

But what does it mean?

Myself, I think it has to do with being inescapably forced to inhabit the violent, corporate machine of colonialism… I’m working on knowledge production about Africa by missionaries and scientists, through looking at archival objects, which are objects but also subjects, violently wrenched from their contexts. The mattress here symbolises something… maybe related to peace of mind, restfulness, not being awake or aware… I don’t know. Whatever it is, it is being violently ruptured. I think this could be about being forced to make one’s bed to lie in, as a researcher and writer inserted into the chain of murderous history, unable to escape perpetuating it even as I try to undo it, still half asleep.

“if i get killed, please don’t bury my soul”

The New York Times recently published an evocative long-form article penned by John Jeremiah Sullivan about the enigmatic Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, woman blues musicians who haunt the archive with just six songs ever recorded, pressed on cheap, poor quality 78s by Paramount in 1930, as was the custom with “race” records not intended for mainstream markets.

I have been gripped on every listening by “Last Kind Words Blues” since I first heard it on the soundtrack to Crumb in the late ’90s (the same place Sullivan did), so I understood what Caitlyn Love, who did much of the the on-the-ground research for Sullivan, meant about its haunting her. From her blog:

When I first started doing research for John Jeremiah Sullivan for his article about Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, two women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace, I kept Wiley’s song “Last Kind Words Blues” on repeat for days. I hadn’t listened closely to her songs before this project, but I was aware of the mythology around them. Now, I found myself hearing something new: a haunting, a mystery.

I began my research splitting time between the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research, hunting among death, birth and marriage records, and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, looking through old maps, photographs and city-directory records. All of these materials provided context for the era that Lillie Mae (Geetchie) Wiley and L.V. Thomas lived through.

Eventually we learned a great deal about Thomas’s personal history. But leads to Wiley went nowhere. I made myself dizzy scrolling through rolls of microfilm to find any meaningful clue. She had disappeared. The trail only picked up once, but it picked up sharply.

 “We may have found Geeshie’s grave yesterday. Not 100 percent but optimistic,” John wrote in an email to editors at the magazine.

Continue reading about Caitlyn Love’s quest HERE.

Read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s piece HERE – it’s beautifully written, and reflects in deep ways on the romance and violence of the archive.

And this is the short version of the story, from a Youtube comment posted last week:

It is now believed that Elvie (L.V. Thomas nee Grant) and Geechie (Lillie Mae Wiley) recorded all of their songs in Grafton, WI for Paramount in 1930. According to L.V., she would play and Geechie would “bass” behind her or she’d play (guitar) and Geechie would “bass” behind her. Thus, it might very well be Geechie we hear doing this fine guitar work. L.V. turned her back on the blues (life) and dedicated herself to her local church in Texas. Geeshie disappeared into the unknown. Recent records indicate she killed her husband with a knife in 1931. She may have changed her name/I.D. to avoid being found.

motherless child blues

on buried treasure (5 june 2012)

ukulele dream girlTo research (English definition): “To search for something.”

Rechercher (French definition): “To search for, to look for” and also “to search again, to look for again”.

Both “search” and “research” are the same word in French, it seems.  This makes sense: even if something was once common knowledge, after it is hidden it is no longer “there”; it has fallen from awareness. So you have to seek for it again, that which is not there. In “research”, you never know what is actually there until you find it, or there would be no need to look. You dis-cover it again, un-cover it anew.

Archives are fascinating places of preservation-with-intent to look in, and they are always tantalisingly incomplete, however exhaustive… But nothing beats the thrill of finding a treasure hoard saved by happenstance.

To “ondersoek” , in Afrikaans, is to look under other things… The term implies a palimpsestic patina, an accretion, a build-up of layers that must be lifted, peeled off to see underneath… the mother lode, the genealogy. Sometimes you know exactly what you are looking for; sometimes you don’t. You may only have a misty hope that there is anything there at all. It can be useful to lose focus, too, because you become open to other routes, other offshoots, that may take you further than your original hunch.

On Saturday, in a poky little shop in Kalk Bay, I found a trove of old sheet music: popular tunes from the 1920s and 1930s, the top few layers of it in torn, grubby disarray. A thrill ran through my fingertips as I started re-moving each sheet from the pile, putting it aside systematically. There was nothing of great interest until I got quite a way below the dusty surface layers, where most people’s patience obviously runs out (this is the trick with digging – to delve deeper, to expend more energy, more time than everyone else – om onder te soek, for there lies the gold). There was no way I could stop.

Buried in the pile, under piano exercise books, I found something that really astounded me… it almost made me shout for joy: many, many of the scores had ukulele chord diagrams on them! In all the popular sheet music I had ever been acquainted with before this, these diagrams were provided for guitar – with five lines for the five strings. These all had only four lines. It became clear to me on seeing this that, along with piano, ukulele was most likely the popular amateur instrument of choice back in the 1920s to 1940s, and not guitar. It makes sense when you listen to the jazziness of the pop arrangements of the time, and how well the chord progressions work technically with a ukulele’s tuning – GCEA. I would suppose that the guitar ousted the uke in popularity with the ascent of blues and rock and folk, in which different chords and tunings predominate, and for which the guitar’s EADGBE tuning is a more natural fit… How lovely to realise that this instrument I play very amateurishly, considered a funny curiosity by most these days, was accorded far more value in the past!oh how she could

What this little discovery means for me, practically, is that I can now play all these very old jazzy tunes with no in-depth knowledge of musical theory. Even the songs I have never heard before can be found with a bit of effort on the internet, listened to, and re-played, provided someone else along the way has seen their value. As long as they were ever recorded, be it on wax cylinder or 78rpm, they may have been digitised. And, as they spin up on my hard drive, a vortex is created, opening a wormhole back to the instant that band played for the first time as the cylinder turned. And the song comes back from the dead as my fingers form the chord shapes, stutters back to life as I sing my breath into the words. Technology is powerful magic, all the more so when it takes account of its historicity.

Information technology is not only about making the future more slick and manageable; it is also about keeping the past accessible… Essentially it is about conquering linear time and space. The prolific recording of moments allows us to live unconstrained by the present moment and space we’re in, almost continuously if we so wish… (For example, people sit on Facebook as they are out for coffee with a friend. Once they have “checked in” at the cafe, they check out what other people are doing elsewhere on their phones, then frame themselves carefully for a photo in that space and capture the moment, uploading it to join the feed for others who are moving through spaces connected via radio waves to know about. Very little other than eating, drinking and self-referential preening is going on in most coffee spots.)

The sheer volume of recording that goes on now is unprecedented. Imagine reading Twitter logs in a century – every ordinary so-and-so with a Twitter account, with their own account of an event… The hyper(in)significance of every moment of our lives being documented is overwhelming to think about. How will historians of the future ever manage to filter out the noise from the signal and deduce anything?

Or, will the noise be the signal – the fragments the whole? How does this affect our memories, our critical faculties, our creativity, our relationships? New technologies confer on us immense power that should be used wisely and with sober discernment, not trivially… as that dumb what’s-her-face model Leandra found out last week when tweeting 140 racially offensive characters cost her her modelling career and dignity, with satisfying, devastating swiftness!

So, anyway, I pulled out a large wad of music sheets; slowly, carefully replaced what I didn’t take for someone else to find. Tried to conceal my excitement as I got to the till; thwacked the pile down and asked nonchalantly, “How much for this old stuff?”

“Two rand a sheet.” After counting to fifteen the old guy stopped and said “I can’t be bothered to count higher than fifteen – it’s yours for thirty bucks.”

I paid thirty rand for all of it. That’s less than a cocktail or a sandwich in the seaside cafes lining that road. So few people seem to see value in this stuff. Not even antique dealers. To them it’s just quaint ephemera.

Research involves following the intuition, the hunch that something lies hidden out of time, out of sight, out of mind: perhaps recorded imperfectly, decaying, deliberately saved. Or, like these priceless music sheets, just debris left in a place where it makes no sense to anyone who has stumbled across it yet… In danger of being lost forever if someone doesn’t come along with enough focused curiosity to re-cognise it as valuable, to think it back into meaningful connection with right now.

To me, the serendipity of finds like Saturday’s feels more than coincidental. If the person looking didn’t happen to be me there at that precise moment, it would probably have been a non-event. Even if it were the me of last year leafing through, I wouldn’t have known what I was looking for. Would have seen the music but not had a ukulele and maybe not noticed that the chord diagrams had only four strings, not five. The me of just a few months back would have seen the music with interest but not known the extent of the 78rpm archive online (having become aware of the degree of coverage of obscure songs through something I have been working on in the past month) and so left it because I didn’t know the songs and didn’t know there was a way to hear them. I don’t often look through second hand stores these days, broke as I am. On Saturday, something compelled me to step inside as I was passing. It felt as if me and the music were drawn together. It felt magical.

marie curie on supporting researchers

Humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit. Without doubt, these dreamers do not deserve wealth, because they do not desire it. Even so, a well-organized society should assure to such workers the efficient means of accomplishing their task, in a life freed from material care and freely consecrated to research.

— Marie Curie, scientist, Nobel laureate (1867-1934)


“Kuulumia is an archaic Finnish word that refers to the aural quality of a landscape. Kuuluma denotes how a space, a clearing, or a site sounds. We have reintroduced this old expression because we feel that the term ‘soundscape’ is slightly problematic. The notion of “soundscape” has a tendency to objectify sonic landscapes and often seems to overlook the listener.”

— Tuike and Simo Alitalo

Read more about the pair’s acoustemological explorations HERE.