Paul Geremia. Courtesy thecountryblues.com
A bit like the Wizard of Oz, avuncular Paul Geremia toils in obscurity, as if behind a curtain while mustering his musical wonders. This remains true despite some critics asserting that he’s as good as anyone playing country blues. He dwells in the murky corners of the blues history he sheds light on.
Yet Geremia also seems to know which side his humble crust of bread is buttered on. He opened a recent recital at the UW-Milwaukee’s MKE Unplugged series with a song that may be the true gem of his substantial repertoire, George Carter’s “Rising River Blues.”
It was surely a stroke of genius for Geremia to dredge “Rising River Blues” out of 1920s obscurity because it’s a marvelous blues song and he performs it like a birthright, from wellsprings of his being.
The mystery of Carter haunts this song because it is so strange and beautiful. Carter recorded only four songs and then he just plain disappeared, according to Geremia, a self-styled historian of American country blues. The plaintive mournfulness of “Rising River Blues” also suggests Carter sensed this was his one shot — that the fate awaiting him weighed heavy on the song. Here’s Geremia singing the song:
And here are the lyrics (without repeats):
Risin’ river blues running by my door
them runnin’ sweet mama like they haven’t done before.
Come here sweet mama, sit down on my knee
these rising river blues sho’ make me, sho’ troublin’ me.
I got to move in the alley
I ain’t allowed on the streets.
These rising river blues sho’ make me be.
Come here sweet mama let me speak my mind.
Lose these blues gonna take a long long time.
Who knows what had happened to Carter. Was he trying to placate a woman filled with fury after he’d betrayed her? Or must we consider a mere accident, the rising river itself, a flood? A rising river is a beautiful, or dirty, grave reaching out to pull you in.
The lyrics suggest an inscrutable, existential, even ontological threat (the blues “sho make me be”), social and likely racist ostracism, a need for love or companionship that he may not be getting, and ever-lurking forces of nature — circumstances that all intertwine in this poor man’s life in ways that he can’t sort out.
Facing the uncertain endlessness of the song’s final line, one can only wonder how long he can hold out.
In the original recording, Carter falls into a wordless vocal chorus that sends him to unfathomable realms of the soul.* The abject mood of the song parallels Robert Johnson’s most low-down reveries. There’s the ravaged texture of Johnson’s intersecting soul, voice and guitar at the bedeviled crossroads.
And yet there’s something softer in Carter’s song than Johnson’s most famous tortured railings and exorcisms, which indicates that the singer might be contemplating suicide.
“If the river was whiskey I would down and jump,” another blues song goes. But this singer doesn’t care whether it’s whiskey or not.
It’s hard to miss the vulnerability and weariness in Geremia’s voice, perhaps an offering of tenderness in the face of possible rejection. So the troubled aura may be akin to say Johnson’s lament, “Love in Vain,” made famous by the Rolling Stones.
And Geremia makes this his story, in how the harmonica orchestrates the scenario as a mottled, lacerated backdrop. His high voice keeps slipping down, even as it struggles to remain above psychic water.
In place of Carter’s wordless chorus Geremia interjects the harp’s moans. The total effect of his one-man-band is a stunning tonal range — his plangent voice, the 12-string guitar’s glimmering radiance evoking the river’s dappled light and energy, and the harmonica’s furry, burry depths — give his interpretation an almost cinematic dimension. Geremia stretches the song out to twice the length of Carter’s original recording. He understands this is a deep, long current worthy of riding.
Geremia is also an extraordinary blues picker, as this song showed as did his rendering of a couple of Robert Johnson tunes in which he unleashed his bottleneck slide technique where the intensity shot up like brutally stinging vipers lashed from the guitar.
He also did superb justice to Skip James and other blues greats and offered a rambling but endearing anecdote about visiting Leadbelly’s grave somewhere in Texas. You sense that this man’s search for truth leads him to the dustiest byways and the highways.
In an era when audiences increasingly appreciate vernacular music of the past, Geremia remains in the background like a sort of blues archeologist. Perhaps it’s because, as he has admitted “It most definitely is work however I’ll probably never be a ‘businessman.’”
Yet one wonders how much public awareness of this gifted man has to do with cultural conditioning and image.
Though he dresses in working-class garb topped by a stylish hat, his portly, mustachioed presence might recall the rotund banker in the board game Monopoly more than an emaciated old black blues man.
The latter, far more romantic image of the blues troubadour, may be something Paul Geremia simply can’t live up to, by accident of genetics. In this case, a stout, aging white guy might just be getting a slightly raw deal.
His attitude toward coping with the music business is reflected in liner notes to his wonderfully titled album Love, Murder and Mosquitoes, which contains “Rising River Blues.” Geremia references Hunter Thompson who is quoted as having said ‘The music business is a shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where pimps and thieves run free and good men die like dogs. There’s always a negative side.”
Geremia presses on, despite that negative reality and yet he seems vigilant regarding the shallow money trench and the rising river that might pull him down, especially if he succumbs to the temptation of slipping into that trench. As long as he keeps floating and landing on the shores of another small club or a fan’s house (as in the video) we should be thankful.
In this instance we can thank UW-Milwaukee, which sponsored him and perhaps helped to draw a crowd that was that easily twice as large as the one that saw him in Madison a few years ago. Finger-style guitar historian John Stropes is a local cultural mover and shaker who teaches a class in his specialty at UWM and he’s helped secure university funding for the MKE Unplugged series.
So artists like Geremia need to persevere and find the dribs and drabs of paydays where ever they may lie.
The real payoff is for the audience.
The series ends May 2 with Billy McLaughlin. For information: http://www4.uwm.edu/psoa/mkeunplugged/
* Thanks to the Internet, even obscurities like this eary recording of George Carter are available for public appreciation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvQQEgB_HCI