Geeshie Wiley


This article evolved from my radio programm ROOTS where i made a special about Geeshie Wiley. Playlist at bottom of this page.

Until 1994 Geeshie Wiley remained virtually unknown, for 64 years she has disappeared – that makes Greil Marcus essay „Disappearence and forgetting“ quite appropriate. During the last twenty years there have been people trying to find out about her and her music. Most information is only related to one single source and when Greil Marcus makes up her life after 1930 his tale’s as likely as what we think to know about her real existence.

Her real name was Lillie Mae and Wikipedia offers three choices for her complete name: Wiley, Scott and Boone. Birthday and -place could be November 8, 1908 somewhere in Louisiana.

Her 15 minutes of stardom came around 1930 although we don’t know how well known she was, and if she had success, how many records she sold. The only source for any knowledge is her partner LV Thomas. If LV stands for anything is not known. In those days it was common to give female African American just letters for their name. Lillie Mae was 22 years old and LV was about 18 years older. Her picture is often painted as that of a strong lesbian carrying a gun under her skirt. Lillie Mae and LV became partners in music and in life for a short while.

Information about that period comes via New York Times via Robert ‚Mack‘ McCormick via LV Thomas. Other sources are cited by Wikipedia (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geeshie_Wiley) including various probable relatives or husbands.
McCormick had interviewed LV in 1961 and even met some of Geeshie’s relatives. In 2014 this was told to John Jeremiah Sullivan from the New York Times.
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/13/magazine/blues.html
Mack had the habit of writing down everything he saw and heard in his little notebook. And over some decades he drove around and examined more than 800 counties, collecting notes on music, theatre and everything along with taping interviews. He has an archive he calls the Monster, completely unsorted and unregistered. He claims to have the only existing photo of Robert Johnson, the photo we know is fake – that’s what Mack says.
He has huge psychological problems like bipolar disorder. Collecting more about southern music than anyone else he had published less than anyone else. He’s in his eighties by now and no one knows if his archive ever will be examined properly.

LV and Geshie started their musical business in the early 1920s – Lillie Mae must have been pretty young then. The last show they did together was in 1933. in Oklahoma, where Geeshie disappeared completely. LV started to play guitar with eleven and soon made a living out if it. So when she met Lillie Mae she was a professional already. LV claims that she gave Lillie Mae the nickname Geeshie, normally used for young women of rural origin. (In German you would call her a „Landei“.) LV had been quite successful playing along with her partner Texas Alexander who didn’t play an instrument. She accompanied him on guitar. Later he played along with Lightning Hopkins or the Mississippi Sheiks. Since she didn’t want to leave Houston she soon found herself with another partner: Geeshie.

Around 1930 they were discovered by Arthur Laibly from Paramount Records.
Paramount Records developed out of a furniture factory. She build musical furniture which they later fed with their own records. They were quite successful and in 1930 produced a quarter of all blues music recorded in the USA. They were known as the record company with worst quality of their records. LV and Lillie Mae traveled up to Paramount’s recording studio in Grafton Wisconsin. They recorded their repertoire out of which six recordings are known: Last kind words, Skinny legs blues, Pick poor robin clean, Over to my house, Motherless child blues (sung by LV), Eagles on the half. Paramount named them Elvie and Geeshie and those names stuck.

Other recordings by Paramount Records on Archive org

In 1930 another event could have ended their partnership. Geeshie’s husband was murdered (stabbed in the neck) and Geeshie seemed to be responsible. It is not known if she was found guilty, maybe there wasn’t a trial at all. Let ’em stab each other – was the saying and police was often almost indifferent if a black male was killed by another black person. Anyway in 1933 Elvie and Geeshie were still performing together. Someday in Checotah Oklahoma she disappeared. (At some point in Mack’s 1961 interview LV says the last she heard from Geeshie was four years ago. But that led to nothing.

Last Kind Words

The first time Geeshie’s name or music appeared again was when in 1994 it was used in a film about cartoonist Robert Crumb. That started a new quest by some researchers. Main interest focused on Last Kind Words which had been used in the film.

Discussion of this song focus on two items:

  • Innovative chord progression and important example of pre-blues music
  • Almost mystical lyrics combined with snippets from ancient or at least old songs

Some links

Article on Kurrent Music
John Fahey and John Sullivan discuss the words
Essay on blog.nyfos.org
Discussion of tunings

The lyrics

The last kind words I heared my daddy say
Lord, the last kind words I heared my daddy say

If I die, if I die in the German war
I want you to send my body, send it to my mother, lord

If I get killed, if I get killed, please don’t bury my soul
I p’fer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole

When you see me comin‘ look ‚cross the rich man’s field
If I don’t bring you flour I’ll bring you bolted meal

I went to the depot, I looked up at the sun
Cried, some train don’t come, there’ll be some walkin‘ done

My mama told me, just before she died
Lord, precious daughter, don’t you be so wild

The Mississippi river, you know it’s deep and wide
I can stand right here, see my babe from the other side

What you do to me baby it never gets outta me
I may not see you after I cross the deep blue sea

Mekons: Geeshie

The Mekons ‚Ancient and modern‘ focusses on a comparison of two historical situations: 1914 and 2014 (roughly spoken). The band came to Geeshie Wiley’s song Last Kind Words via Jeff Tweedy of Wilco who brought a copy to the Mekons recording session. Jon Langford and Lu Edmonds came into a discussion of the song structure, fumbled around with the song, pushing some pieces around and came up with a new song: Geeshie

Greil Marcus on Mekons and Geeshie

Playlist Roots Special

Rhiannon Giddens: Last kind words
Dex Romweber Duo (feat. Jack White): Last kind words
David Johansen: Last kind words
Mekons: Geeshie (Ancient and modern)
Danny Kalb & Stefan Grossman: Eagles on the half (Crosscurrents)
Geeshie Wiley: Skinny leg blues)
Luke Jordan: Pick poor robin clean (Befóre the blues vol. 3)
Geeshie Wiley : Pick poor robin clean
Detroit Cobras: Over to my house (Original recordings and singles)
Earl Scruggs & Tracy Nelson: Motherless child blues (I saw the light with a little help from my friends)
Elvie Thomas & Geeshie Wiley: Motherless child blues
Gentry Brothers: I was born 4000 years ago (Paramount old time rocordings)

LINKS:

Geechie Wiley An Exploration of Enigmatic Virtuosity by AnneMarie Cordeiro
Geeshie on Wikipedia
Elvie on Wikipedia
John Jeremiah Sullivan in New York Times

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