In an effort to better acquaint you, the reader, with the VQR staff, members of our team will share excerpts from our personal reading—The Best 200 Words I Read All Week. From fact to fiction, from comedic to tragic, we hope you find as much to admire in these selections as we do.
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Outside any bullyingly hyperbolical attempts to describe the technical beauty of the songs themselves, there’s another facet to them, one that deepens their fascination, namely a certain time-capsule dimension. The year 1930 seems long ago enough now, perhaps, but older songs and singers can be heard to blow through this music, strains in the American songbook that we know were there, from before the Civil War, but can’t hear very well or at all. There’s a song, Geeshie’s “Last Kind Words,” a kind of pre-blues or not-yet-blues, a doomy, minor-key lament that calls up droning banjo songs from long before the cheap-guitar era, with a strange thumping rhythm on the bass string. “If I get killed,” Geeshie sings, “if I get killed, please don’t bury my soul.” There’s a blues, “Motherless Child,” with 16-bar, four-line stanzas, that begins by repeating the same line four times, “My mother told me just before she died,” AAAA, no variation, just moaning the words, each time with achingly subtle microvariations, notes blue enough to flirt with tonal chaos. Generations of spirituals pass through “Motherless Child,” field melodies and work songs drift through it, and above everything, the playing brims with unfalsifiable sophistication. Elvie’s notes float. She sends them out like little sailboats onto a pond.
Editorial Intern Sydney Bradley
Excerpt from “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie,” New York Times Magazine, by John Jeremiah Sullivan
She sees for the first time that the hair on top of his head is thinning. Of late, when he works long and hard, she has to boil soursop-leaf tea for him to make him sleep. Ten years they have been together, they have two children living and one little girl who died from a hole in the heart. Everybody says that she was one of the prettiest babies they had ever seen. Although Lilla had cried night and day for weeks after the baby’s death, Alphanso never cried. Even when he had to make the coffin for his own child, and lift it up, and put her and the coffin in the grave tha the same one helped to dig under the June plum tree in the yard, he never cried.
Alphanso, I think we should get married. Or, Alphanso, you don’t think is time me and you get married now? Or… Alphanso, you don’t think that after everything that me and you go through we must get married?
She is still there trying to decide what is the best way to say what she wants to say when he finishes eating and gets up off the toolbox and says:
“Thank you for the lunch, Lilla. See you later on.”
Editorial Intern Zoe Papelis
Excerpt from “Jamaica Hope,” By Love Possessed, by Lorna Goodison