It’s sometimes difficult to work out the words that someone is saying, and it can be especially difficult to work out the words that someone is singing. We get mondegreens, and there are disputes about the words to songs, even when we have recordings that can be played over and over (in “Live and Let Die”, did Paul McCartney sing “in this world in which we live in” or “in this world in which we’re livin’”? — some Language Log discussion here). Now, in the latest Harper’s Magazine (March 2009), a spectacular display of disagreement about lyrics, in an exchange in the Letters section (pp. 4-5).
The problem clearly lies in the articulation of the singer, Geeshie Wiley. One of the disputants, John Jeremiah Sullivan, actually takes the opacity of Wiley’s articulation to be a positive feature of her performances:
Part of those early recordings’ profundity and aliveness is that they’ll never close themselves to our guesses.
The story begins with a letter from reader John Cushing (of Port of Spain, Trinidad):
I beg to differ with what John Jeremiah Sullivan heard in Geeshie Wiley’s  “Last Kind Words Blues” ["Unknown Bards," Review, November].
In the second verse, the singer’s daddy requests that his “body,” not his “money,” be sent to his mother-in-law.
In the third verse, the second line is “Please don’t tell a soul,” not “Please don’t bury my soul.”
In the final verse, she is singing “I mean to see you, if I have to cross the deep blue sea,” not “I believe I’ll see ya after I cross the deep blue sea.”
The line “I mean to see you, if I have to cross the deep blue sea” must have been what Ed Komara and Dean Blackwood heard; they included it in their song notes for the Revenant Records edition.
John Jeremiah Sullivan responds:
John Cushing’s opinions on the mystery verses in “Last Kind Words Blues” are plausible. They’re ones I’ve shared at times, in hearing the song on different speakers or in different cars. The lyrics I printed in the article are what I’d settled on when I wrote it, and I’ll politely stand by them now. Part of those early recordings’ profundity and aliveness is that they’ll never close themselves to our guesses. It should be noted in this regard that Chris King, the engineer briefly profiled in my piece, does not agree with me and John Fahey about the line involving “bolted meal.” He thinks Geeshie Wiley’s saying, “I’ll bring you a broken will.”
For what it’s worth, I’m more inclined to agree with Cushing’s perceptions than Sullivan’s, but these are close calls.