Nothing confounds blues scholars and historians as much as the total lack of information regarding many of the early blues musicians who laid down their songs on record. Perhaps, the most mysterious figure of the lot (Robert Johnson notwithstanding) is Geeshie Wiley, the singer and guitarist who cut three 78-rpm records in 1930 and 1931 with her partner Elvie Thomas, and promptly disappeared without a trace.
Wiley’s masterpiece is “Last Kind Words Blues”, which is also one of the rarest blues records with only three known existing copies. The power of the song comes from the aura of gloom and doom that hangs over it. Indeed, there are fewer blues songs that are as haunting as “Last Kind Words”, and the utter strangeness of the track is enhanced by the fact that we know very little about Wiley.
It has been conjectured that “Geeshie” (sometimes spelt as “Geechie”) was likely a nickname, suggesting that she may have had Gullah roots—former West African slaves from South Carolina and Georgia. But where she came from, the places where she learnt her songs and where she went is shrouded in mystery. All we have are the six songs that she recorded for Paramount records (not to be confused with the famous Hollywood film studio). Another little known blues singer, Elvie Thomas who was apparently her musical partner, appears on these tracks playing second guitar and providing backing vocals and singing the lead on one song, “Motherless Child Blues”.
But the most startling lines appear near the end of the song: “The Mississippi river, you know is deep and wide/I can stand right here, see my babe from the other side.” As the music critic Greil Marcus has noted, Wiley can see her own face from across the river, because “hers is the only face to see; all those she loves are dead”.
Last year, “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie”, an almost novella-length article by John Jeremiah Sullivan appeared in The New York Times Magazine, creating quite a stir in the blues music community and a fair bit of controversy as well. The article reads like a detective story full of twists and turns, and in it Sullivan claims to have uncovered what became of Elvie Thomas, Wiley’s partner.
The flip side of “Last Kind Words”, which was recorded in March 1930, is “Skinny Leg Blues”. It’s about a woman who can hold her own and in it are these prophetic lines: “I’m gonna cut your throat baby, gonna look down in your face…I’m gonna let some lonesome graveyard be your restin’ place.”