Ghost Woman Blues

Geeshie Wiley, an early blues singer and guitarist cut three 78-rpm records in 1930 and 1931, 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.
Wiley’s masterpiece is “Last Kind Words Blues”, which is also one of the rarest blues records with only three known existing copies.

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”.

Last Kind Words” has a menacing minor key sound, something which was rare in early blues, and the otherworldly tone of the record could be compared to some of the sides recorded by Wiley’s contemporary, Skip James. To say that the song is sad would be an understatement. As Wiley goes through the song’s verses, it seems that everyone she has known is dead, and she is merely counting the days when she will be gone as well. Her lover has been killed in the “German war” (World War I for us). Before leaving, he implores to Wiley that should he die, he should not be buried. Rather, she should “let the buzzards eat me whole”.

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.

Sullivan found that Elvie’s first name was actually L.V. and she lived the last few decades of her life in Houston. Like many blues musicians, she had found religion and abandoned her sinful ways, and died in 1979. Sullivan was less successful with Wiley, but he did discover that Geeshie was born Lillie Mae in Louisiana around 1908. Over the course of his research, Sullivan finds that Geeshie was married to one Thornton Wiley, whose death certificate reveals a chilling secret. Thornton had been murdered in 1931, and his death was a result of a stab wound between the collar bone and the neck. Further down the death certificate it is noted: “Knife wound inflicted by Lillie Mae Scott”. And there the trail ends. Perhaps, as Sullivan conjectures, Geeshie escaped “out West”. It seems that she will always remain a cipher. But before we pull the curtain down, we come across a very spooky fact…

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.”

Listen to “Last Kind Words Blues” here and “Skinny Leg Blues” here.

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