The mystery of Geeshie and Elvie

I can still remember how the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I first heard “Last Kind Word Blues,” by a Southern blues singer named “Geeshie” Wiley. I forget exactly where I heard it — I thought it was embedded as an audio file in the article posted below, a feature from the New York Times magazine that was published in 2014. But when I went back to check, it wasn’t there. It might have been in the movie “Crumb,” a documentary on underground artist Robert Crumb, which used it. Anyway, I think part of my interest was the haunting sound of the song itself, and part was that I had never heard of Geeshie Wiley, despite a lifelong love of American blues music from the turn of the century.

When I looked up the song, I came across the video embedded below on YouTube, in which someone going by the name “I Play Banjo Now” plays it in 2012, sitting on what appears to be a bed in an unkempt bedroom. It really captures the essence of Geeshie’s performance, I think, and many of the more than 500 commenters on the video seem to agree. I have returned to play this video many times over the years (I’ve also learned to play the song myself on guitar, although not nearly as well). The performer, I found out later, is Christine Pizzuti, whose version appears on an album of American Blues songs called The American Epic Sessions, along with artists like Jack White and the Avett Brothers. The album is also the soundtrack to a movie of the same name.

So who who was Geeshie Wiley? Where did she come from? And what happened to her? As the NYT piece makes clear, there are no easy answers to those questions:

“In the world of early-20th-century African-American music and people obsessed by it, there exist no ghosts more vexing than a couple of women identified on three ultrarare records made in 1930 and ’31 as Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. There are musicians as obscure as Wiley and Thomas, and musicians as great, but in none does the Venn diagram of greatness and lostness reveal such vast and bewildering co-extent. In the spring of 1930, in a damp and dimly lit studio, in a small Wisconsin village on the western shore of Lake Michigan, the duo recorded a batch of songs that for more than half a century have been numbered among the masterpieces of prewar American music, in particular two, Elvie’s “Motherless Child Blues” and Geeshie’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” twin Alps of their tiny oeuvre.”

Despite more than 50 years of research by experts in Southern blue music history, we still know virtually nothing about Geeshie Wiley or Elvie Thomas, but a lot of what we do know comes from the research done for this New York Times feature, by John Jeremiah Sullivan, an American writer, musician, teacher, and editor. He notes that there are fewer than 10 surviving copies of the output of Elvie and Geeshie, all in private hands. At the time they were recorded, there was little to no American record industry to speak of:

“A furniture company, that’s how it started. The Wisconsin Chair Company. They got into making phonograph cabinets. If people had records they liked, they would want phonographs to play them on, and if they had phonographs, they would want cabinets to keep them in. The discs were even sold, especially at first, in furniture shops. They were literally accessories. Toys, you could say. In fact, the first disc “records” were manufactured to go with a long-horned gramophone distributed by a German toy company. In 1920, when the white-owned OKeh label shocked even itself by selling hundreds of thousands of copies of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (the first blues recorded by an African-American female vocalist), the furniture-phonograph complex spied a chance.”

As these blues records started to pile up, a few intrepid collectors started to try and document this emerging sound — including a young man named Robert McCormick, known as “Mack.” He took a job with the census, expressly requesting that he be assigned the Fourth Ward, the historic African-American neighborhood in Houston settled by freed slaves who migrated there from all parts of the South, where he knew he would find records and lots of musicians, going house to house. Over the decades, he accumulated one of the finest collections of music and documentation of the artists of this period, which Sullivan says he got a look at when he visited the 80-plus year-old McCormick. And among those notes were some hints about Geeshie and Elvie.

“One was a copy of a letter addressed to Paul Oliver, the much-esteemed English blues historian, who is McCormick’s longest and most important collaborator. It began: “I got a live one! A 70-year-old woman blues guitarist and singer — who recorded for Paramount. She is L.V. Thomas who recorded solo and with her partner Lillie Mae ‘Geetchie’ Wiley.”

Mack McCormick

The interviewer tracked Elvie (or L.V.) down at a senior’s residence in 1961 and interviewed her when she was almost 70. She said: “I started playing guitar when I was about 11 years old. There were blues even back then. It wasn’t so big a part of music as later but there were blues. But in 1937 I joined the church so I gave up all I ever did know about music.” She talked about being asked to record with “a girl named Lillie Mae Wiley. I called her Geetchie, and that’s the name [they] decided to put on the records.” Geetchie or Geeshie was a term that was sometimes used in the South to mean a hayseed or yokel.

Sullivan tracked down relatives of Elvie’s, who said she used to “carry a long-barelled pistol under her apron, and didn’t trust banks — she kept her money in the outhouse, under the planks. She liked to hunt possums and chopped her own wood. And they said she used to jump trains.” According to one relative, Elvie “estranged herself from our family, because of her lifestyle.” What did that mean? “She dressed like a man,” this relative said, and suggested (without saying so) that she was a lesbian. “There was a place for lesbians in the blues world,” Sullivan writes. “Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Gladys Bentley, Ethel Waters, many others — you can’t tell the story of the early blues without the lesbians.”

Were Elvie and Geeshie lovers? Sullivan says there’s no way to tell — but according to the bits of evidence of her life he managed to track down, Geeshie or Lillie Mae was married briefly to a man, who was later murdered, apparently by his wife, who stabbed him through the neck. She served some jail time, and then seems to have disappeared into the ether. Wikipedia has a collection of rumors and innuendo: A musician named Ishmon Bracey, a contemporary of Wiley’s, says she came from Natchez, Mississippi, and was romantically linked with the Delta blues musician Papa Charlie McCoy. Others say she married Casey Bill Weldon after his divorce from early Blues legend Memphis Minnie. Bass player Herbert Wiley said she was a cousin on his father’s side and that her family had farmed in South Carolina and died in 1938 or 1939.

In the end, all we have is bits and pieces of a life, and the haunting melody of songs like “Last Kind Words Blues.” And perhaps that is enough!

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