If I get killed, please don't bury my soul.
April 12, 2014 9:52 AM   Subscribe

The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie. No grave site, no photograph. Forget that — no anecdotes. This is what set Geeshie and Elvie apart even from the rest of an innermost group of phantom geniuses of the ’20s and ’30s. Their myth was they didn’t have anything you could so much as hang a myth on.
posted by oinopaponton (42 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
"Last Kind Word Blues" is an amazing record. Nice article.
posted by jonmc at 10:26 AM on April 12, 2014

What a great article!
posted by Mister Bijou at 10:30 AM on April 12, 2014

"Last Kind Word Blues" has been one of my favorite songs for a long time. I knew that there was very little information about Geeshie Wiley, so I'm really looking forward to reading this. Here's a CD that has a lot of her music and much more.
posted by freakazoid at 10:55 AM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks. That was one of the most enthralling pieces of writing I've ever read.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 11:04 AM on April 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

delightful piece.
posted by mwhybark at 11:22 AM on April 12, 2014

So good, thanks for sharing this!
posted by retronic at 11:31 AM on April 12, 2014

Hmm, poking around, I found a death certificate for an L V Thomas on May 20, 1979 in Houston, Texas. Born August 7, 1890, lived at 1044 Glenn which is dead in the middle of Acres Homes. Almost certainly his informant, and apparently Elvie was a corruption of "L V", not the other way around.
posted by tavella at 11:36 AM on April 12, 2014

Um, I think he figured that out. (You should read the article. It's really good.)
posted by neroli at 11:38 AM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, weird, for some reason the second half of the story didn't load for me, it cut off after the bit with McCormick and the interview notes. I was kind of wondering why he left it there!
posted by tavella at 11:46 AM on April 12, 2014

That is an incredibly annoying and pretentious site design. If you scroll down, it stops playing. If you change tabs, it stops playing. I don't listen to JUST music, I listen to music while I do things, like read the damn article. Stop forcing me to listen to music how you (NY Times) think it should be listened to, and let me listen to it how I want to.
posted by Canageek at 12:08 PM on April 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

There seem to be a lot of Robert McCormicks in the American folk/blues world. People who get eaten by their own collecting or research. I remember reading about some guy who is sitting on probably finest collection of old blue records in the world, many of them the last existing copy, and very occasionally he'll let someone have a listen or record one, but no one can convince him to allow proper archival copies to be made, much less released.

I figure it's about 50/50 odds that his entire collection of notes and recordings gets put in a dumpster after his death, and even if it gets preserved I bet it goes in chunks and pieces to whoever can pony up some money instead of going to a public institution where everyone can access it for research. Kinda depressing.
posted by tavella at 12:24 PM on April 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thank you for this, an amazing article and story.
posted by sudasana at 12:42 PM on April 12, 2014

Oh man, I first heard "Last Kind Word" (on the Crumb soundtrack, like probably most of the people who have) going on 20 years ago, and it's haunted me ever since, like someone's only known photograph. I look forward to getting to read and listen to this whole article. Thanks!
posted by Strange Interlude at 1:13 PM on April 12, 2014

Wow, this was fantastic. Thanks for making my weekend. Skinny Leg Blues is one of the most revelatory songs I've heard in a while- it's like a peek into a whole vanished world I never knew existed. I feel like I have so many new threads to learn about now! Not to hijack, but does anyone know any good starting places for more information about these early music styles? Lomax, obviously, but where do I learn more?
posted by DGStieber at 1:40 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

The author of the article previously on the blues, and on the Blue.
posted by AceRock at 2:27 PM on April 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

I am usually unsettled and even vexed at the long-running white middle-class fascination with "raw," "primitive" black blues music. It seems odd and dissociative to me - that very few of these people seem to musicians, or to have any notion of actually being part of the world they're diving into, but merely wish to document and revel in it and listen - as though it wouldn't really be "authentic" if they played it themselves, as if one has to be poor and black and uneducated and vulgar to do it right. There is something fetishistic about wanting to record was sounds to you to be a "dying world." The relationship between the John and Alan Lomax and the awful Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, at turns starry-eyed and paternalistic and then shot through with crashing realism, bears this out, I think. So I generally am very skeptical of the old white blues obsessives, of the increasing focus on "country blues" and the like.

And yet this article was so well-written that - I have to say - I found it quite enthralling. There is something in the search for long-lost people and historical details that enthralls. Thanks, oinopaponton.
posted by koeselitz at 2:54 PM on April 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have been obsessed with John Jeremiah Sullivan since reading his NYT article about massages a year and a half ago. It stopped me in my tracks, and since then I pause and focus any time I see his byline.

I strongly recommend Pulphead, his collection of essays.

He's incredible.
posted by thejoshu at 4:46 PM on April 12, 2014 [7 favorites]

Wow, that article is wonderul, and a serious labor of love. Thanks for the post.

I'm absolutely wild about that song, and I've covered it a few times as well.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:01 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seriously bad design there. I loved the article, I'd've loved to have read it with the music playing in the background. Not gonna happen, though.
posted by nevercalm at 6:20 PM on April 12, 2014

If you go all the way to the bottom of the article it has all the music and will play in another tab.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:51 PM on April 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am curious about one thing, though. While it seems extremely likely that the Lillie Mae who stabbed Thornton Wiley was the same one who was living with him a year earlier, it doesn't seem conclusive, and also if they were the same person the differing names and Thornton described as single wouldn't necessarily mean they had broken up and Lillie Mae had remarried. It seems possible that instead it was a common-law marriage, so that in answering census questions she used Wiley's name, but in describing his murder his brother was in no mood to extend informal rights. It's not like the death certificate had a 'dating' or 'living together' option, you were either single or married. In which case Lillie Mae Scott may be Geeshie's birth name.

However, I'm kind of assuming a guy who did this much research had also considered this possibility, so I am wondering if there is more research elided under that brief description.
posted by tavella at 8:27 PM on April 12, 2014

posted by bird internet at 5:08 AM on April 13, 2014

I have been obsessed with John Jeremiah Sullivan since reading his NYT article about massages a year and a half ago. It stopped me in my tracks, and since then I pause and focus any time I see his byline.

I strongly recommend Pulphead, his collection of essays.

He's incredible.
posted by thejoshu

If you have a chance to hear him read, do it. A couple of years ago I heard him read his long piece about Andrew Lytle from Pulphead. Now I'm buried in Lytle's books.

I've not run into a Sullivan article not worth reading.
posted by rock swoon has no past at 6:20 AM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow, that's a great article. Thanks for the post.

Also, koeselitz: I sympathize with your skepticism about the white blues collectors, but, man, oh man, country blues can get right into your soul after a while.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:27 AM on April 13, 2014

There is something in the search for long-lost people and historical details that enthralls.

Really. In my wanderings I've come across a lot of people, lay "cultural archeologists", who've found meaning in conserving something remarkable which is vanishing. And their "Brigadoon plight" as they age is that, without publication, without recognition, their treasures will go unrecognized and be lost.

Pop recordings "archeologist" Joel Whitburn, like the Lomaxes, found a way. Most, I think, don't. People's relatives have no interest or understanding of their "odd preoccupation" and (until recently) no way of finding a specialist who could understand the value.

I can only imagine the scope of what's continually being lost. In one of my visits, I saw a big collection of maps. In another, the whole second floor of a small house was given over to Indian artifacts and hundreds of books, an actual "prole museum" which was supposed to find a home but may not have.

Today the Internet Archive may be the only place which has the capacity and the desire to preserve these fading troves - to give them a chance to survive the indifference. Hooking these collections up with specialists is their only hope.
posted by Twang at 6:29 AM on April 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm not so sure. I'm certainly grateful to John and Alan Lomax for their life's work, but the best way to "preserve" a "dying" music isn't to go around recording it. It's to play it your damn self.

There's a curious thing that biologists say about species which face extinction. It's fine to record their habits, to make observations so that future generations will know about what they were like; but ironically one of the surest ways to get people to preserve a particular animal is to get them to eat it, because then they'll keep it around at least for food.

Music is like that. Recorders are great, but it needs players more than it needs recorders.
posted by koeselitz at 7:13 AM on April 13, 2014

Recorders are great, but it needs players more than it needs recorders.

Fact is, it needs both. Many of the *original* players of American folk music were already copping some of their stuff from, yup, records. In the country blues tradition, any number of iconic Delta bluesmen were greatly influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson records, for example. They were players, and they were listeners. Records have been essential components in the folk tradition since their introduction.

Documentation of folk music of all sorts has been hugely, enormously, almost incalculably important to moving music forward, and not, as you would seem to argue, koeselitz, simply fossilizing it.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:10 AM on April 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

True. And, in contradistinction to my point above, we might note the central reason most people know what "country blues" is – because a generation after Lomax and his small band of assiduous compatriots performed their service and recorded that music, musicians around the world were set afire by it as an influence and made it the air they breathed. You're right that these things aren't really separate. They work together.
posted by koeselitz at 8:56 AM on April 13, 2014

Not to hijack, but does anyone know any good starting places for more information about these early music styles? Lomax, obviously, but where do I learn more?

Man, I was really hoping that one of metafilter's resident blues scholars might take this up- really, you could do a lot worse than starting like this, y2karl's posts and comments here are a treasure trove, I have no idea how many of the youtube links might still be active but even so. (and now I note that the first post that comes up in that search was by flapjax at midnite, who obviously has some deep music knowledge to share as well.)

I think the first book I read about this sort of thing, though concentrating strictly on the blues, was I'd Rather be the Devil, a biography of Skip James. Not sure if that's the best place to start but it will probably convince you of two things. One: Skip James was the ne plus ultra of blues guitarists, an utterly unique pianist, and had a positively otherworldly voice as well. Two: pretty much anyone who ever had the chance to meet James regretted having done so because his talent was nearly eclipsed by his monstrous ego and general dickishness. He was a guy who went back to his first career - pimping - when the music biz proved unprofitable for him, and oh yeah, he probably also murdered a few people along the way, and he wasn't very sorry about any of it.

Anyways, that's a good if not-entirely-pleasant book. I'd also recommend The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus, which despite the title is at least as much about Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, which is an indispensable, though certainly idiosyncratic, collection of, um, old, weird American music, as it is about Dylan. This blog is some very in-depth writing as well, covering that anthology track-by-track.

Rather than make this comment even longer, I'll hope that someone who knows more than me chimes in. Hell, it'd probably actually make a good askme, if you were so inclined.
posted by hap_hazard at 1:30 PM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

these things aren't really separate.

Agree. Musicians know how much of a great performance is to be found in the sheet music (let alone charts). But unlike the past when a performing tradition might be continuously preserved by craftsmen, the fecundity of music thins out those numbers. Genres rise and fall, rise and fall in popularity, and sometimes the period of those tides endangers the living traditions.

For example, consider late-20s, early-30s films. The way those bands sounded was largely the result of the limitations of tech at that time. Without the films, imagine how far off the mark we'd be trying to recreate that sound.

Another example is found in baroque music: until the "original instruments" movement began, few people realized how far the performances, instruments and band sizes had mutated from the originals.
posted by Twang at 5:06 PM on April 13, 2014

The author talks about the story.
posted by Anitanola at 1:31 AM on April 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Man, I was really hoping that one of metafilter's resident blues scholars might take this up...

Well, um, for one...

O Black and Unknown Bards - Among Other Things, Regarding The White Invention of The Blues

I still have a copy of the pdf of the Atlantic article by Sullivan that was the first link, if you are interested....

Oh, now, I see it was mentioned, sort of... Oh, well, my bad
posted by y2karl at 2:15 PM on April 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

An awkward PDF scan of Unknown Bards still online.
posted by cgc373 at 11:57 PM on April 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

A stunningly good article, both profound & profoundly moving (to this reader).
posted by On the Corner at 1:19 AM on April 16, 2014

I have talked before about the amateur musicologist in New Zealand who collects pianola rolls, who managed to track down my family and give us a piece of our history, just in time for my grandfather to hear his long-deceased mother play again before he died.

I was just going through all the e-mails that were forwarded to me between my second-cousins and this collector as he hit upon Chicago and the right family for "Ruth Mack" but the wrong branch of the family, and the questions sort-of go through the family grapevine until my grandfather is like, "Oh, yeah, my mother totally did some piano rolls during the Depression, she stopped when I was six or seven, is it important?" It's amazing how tenuous the strands are that managed to connect this all together. Both of his sisters had died by the time the piano roll guy got in touch with us; three years later and there would have been nobody left who could say for sure.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:24 PM on April 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Did those "download mp3" links just get added? I went back to listen to the songs and noticed that it was possible to download them now. Did I miss the links the first time or were they just added?
posted by Kattullus at 6:39 PM on April 21, 2014

There were download links when I first read it, at the bottom.
posted by tavella at 8:00 PM on April 21, 2014

I finally got around to reading this and once I started, almost couldn't stop. It's fascinating to find out that a piece of blues history comes from your hometown. Also totally fascinating to see the way the story unfolded about lesbianism and the way people clearly knew about it and yet nobody talked about it.

(On the subject of recording and playing, I rarely find that I want to listen to ancient recordings in the musical traditions I love, but there's a place for the sort of academic reconstruction and field recording as well as the living tradition of music. I'm firmly in the "both are important" camp.)
posted by immlass at 10:22 PM on April 21, 2014

Oh, and I was trying to google for info on McCormick's theory of clusters, but found nothing. Is that something that's generally accepted by ethnomusicologists in the US or is it controversial? Anyone here know?
posted by Kattullus at 10:55 AM on April 22, 2014

I found the way the music stopped playing when you left the screen to be a feature, not a bug.
posted by bongo_x at 3:11 PM on April 22, 2014

Great article, so good I saved the whole page to go back to.
posted by bongo_x at 3:11 PM on April 22, 2014

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