Thursday, May 29, 2014

Geeshie Wiley & Elvie Thomas: Lost & Found.

Some time ago, in one of my first blog entries, I wrote a piece about Geeshie Wiley's recording of "Last Kind Word Blues." At the time, virtually nothing was known of Wiley, which only reinforced the song's unsettling mystique. "Like Wiley herself," I wrote, "the song seems to mysteriously exist on its own terms, holding all but revealing nothing."

"Last Kind Word Blues" is a song about a woman who hears the last kind words of her WWI lover to send his body to his mother-in-law if he doesn't survive the war (he won't). It is a song about a woman who, when reflecting upon her own death, decides she'd rather be eaten by buzzards than receive a proper burial. It is a song about a woman whose simple actions—walking across a rich man's field, going to the depot & looking up at the sign—take on the epic weight of a Biblical parable. It is a song about a woman who recounts her mother's dying words to her to not be so wild, in a voice that is void of any sense of wildness, let alone any trace of youthful daughterhood. It is a song in which a woman looks across the Mississippi River & sees her own face on the other side. It is a song about a woman who is inflicted with a feeling that she cannot get out of her & believes she has to cross the deep blue sea.

It is a song about profound loneliness, the finality of death, & the solitude of sin.

It is a song about isolation, about entrapment, about depression.

It is a song about Purgatory.

"Geechie Wiley can see her face from across the Mississippi River because hers is the only face to see;" Greil Marcus wrote in Invisible Republic (later retitled The Old, Weird America: The World Of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes), "all that she loves are dead, & there is no hint of community or society, of town & fellowship, anywhere in her song. The country it makes is a wasteland." Or, as Don Kent put it in the liner notes of the 1994 Yazoo Records compilation Mississippi Masters: Early American Blues Classics, 1927-35: "If Geeshie Wiley did not exist, she could not be invented."

But Geeshie Wiley did exist, as did her singing partner, Elvie Thomas, as evidenced in a remarkable new article by John Jeremiah Sullivan, "The Ballad Of Geeshie & Elvie," which was featured as the cover story on The New York Times Magazine last month. For anyone who's a fan of Wiley, Thomas, or the country blues, this article is a watershed & must be read in full; Sullivan's ability to describe the big picture while simultaneously focusing on the details is masterful, & much of his work would not be possible without the help of Caitlin Love, who dug through the trenches to provide the groundwork for many of the article's revelations.

In the article, it is Thomas who emerges most fully from the mystic chords of history. She was born August 7, 1891, went to prison at 18 for unknown reasons, played picnics with (& outsang) blues legends, teamed up with another female blues singer named Geeshie Wiley, recorded a few records with her in Wisconsin, then later turned to God, & apparently lesbianism. By the time she died on May 20, 1979, she was best remembered as a strict, God-loving hermit who chain-smoked cigarettes & had the most beautiful voice in the Mount Pleasant Church of Houston, Texas. She had cut off all ties to her blues-performing past—helped, no doubt by what Sullivan terms the "long, invisible blade between the two destinies" of "Elvie, a singer, who lives nowhere, & L.V., a woman, at her house in Houston"—such that her own family were surprised to hear of her unique blues legacy when the article was being published.

Geeshie Wiley largely remains in the shadows. We learn her birth name, Lillie Mae Scott, that she was born in Louisiana around 1908, married a man named Thorton Wiley who Thomas did not care for, & went off to live in rural Oklahoma some three years after recording her entire known catalog of a half-dozen sides. As Caitlin Love discovered, Geeshie Wiley comes sharpest into view is on the death certificate of her estranged husband who "died of stab wound between collarbone & neck" by a "Knife wound inflicted by Lillie Mae Scott."

What makes this so epic is that Wiley seems to predict this act of violence on the flipside of "Last Kind Word Blues" in a song called "Skinny Leg Blues."

I'm gonna cut your throat, baby, gonna look down in your face

I'm gonna let some lonesome graveyard be your resting place.

Given the events that soon played out after Geeshie Wiley recorded this song, these words are jarring enough, but considering the musical creative environment of the day, they are all the more bizarre and unusual. In their definitive Faking It: The Quest For Authenticity In Popular Music, Hugh Barker & Yuval Taylor write about what a relatively recent phenomenon the autobiographical song is: "Performers often use autobiographical song now as a talisman of their personal authenticity, parading their insecurities & problems through song in order to boast of how 'real' they are. But it was not common to give such detail in song until relatively recently, especially not in songs aimed at a mass market."

Barker & Taylor's example of a rare autobiographical exception that proves the rule is Jimmie Rodgers' "T.B. Blues," which he recorded in January 1931; when he died of tuberculosis two years later, people made the then-unusual leap of connecting the song's lyrical content with the singer's plight. Wiley's recording of "Skinny Leg Blues" was made in March 1930. In the time between Jimmie Rodgers recorded "T.B. Blues" & died of the disease he sang about, Geeshie Wiley cut her baby's throat.

Thus, a post-rock temptation to take all lyrics as autobiographical is seemingly justified by Geeshie Wiley's words & actions. If the most dire of her lyrics are proven accurate, what does this mean about her as a musical artist & lyricist? Is this another way in which she was ahead of her time? & does this now grant us the ability to listen to all of her songs that much more literally, the way we might be tempted to hear a John Lennon or a Joni Mitchell song?

Part of the unique chill of "Last Kind Word Blues" is how directly Geeshie sings it; this is not the lament of some overwrought torch song or a blues that uses irony like a shield to distance the singer from the hardship they express. When Geeshie tells you the last kind words of her lover, you take her at her word, just like she takes her lover at his word within the song.

The effect is that Geeshie is further drawn into the world of "Last Kind Word Blues" & further separated from our own. & yet, only a few weeks ago, it was largely unknown any concrete detail of her life, down to her real name. "Last Kind Word Blues," then, pulls the ultimate trick—it continues to recede even as we gain new facts that should allow us to view it closer. As Sullivan hints, our mind races at his article's newfound information. Given L.V.'s lesbian lifestyle & guardedness about Geeshie, is it possible that the two women were lovers? & if so, did Thorton Wiley suspect, know, or walk into the wrong room at the wrong time? Did L.V. secretly blame herself for Thorton Wiley's murder? It would be enough to make someone want to turn to the church & never look back.

It is tempting to say that we'll never know what happened, but given the recent small avalanche of information that has appeared, perhaps maybe we will. As a professor I sometimes do research for likes to say, "It's all out there waiting. You just have to find it."

Still, perhaps our postmodern, post-feminist readings of Geeshie & L.V. tell us more about the age that we live in than the one that we tell ourselves we are reconstructing. But now, with the long-forgotten murder of Thorton Wiley & Geeshie Wiley's recorded prophetic confession in the year prior, the strangest force imaginable now seems to attach itself to Geeshie's recordings: Truth.

One cannot help to wonder if maybe, just maybe, when Geeshie Wiley looked across the Mississippi River, she could see her face on the other side.

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