For many years, I have been fascinated by the blue duo Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. They recorded a handful of songs in 1930 that are classics to people like me who love all that old blues music from the Mississippi Delta. (But read on.) In addition to it being really unique in that here you have two great blues singers and guitar players working together, there was the fact that we didn’t know anything about them. And I did look into it. But unlike Robert Johnson who we at least have lots of legends about, there was nothing about these two. But then I found this amazing article by John Jeremiah Sullivan in The New York Times magazine, The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie. It was subtitled, “On the trail of the phantom women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace.”
If you are interested in this music or the period or just the work that ethnomusicologists do, stop reading right now and go read the article. It is fantastic. A great mystery is unraveled right before you. But I will warn you: at the end, you will want more. It is a very long article, however. I’ll give you the lowdown here. And the first thing I should probably do is introduce you to Geeshie and Elvie. Although most people who are into this kind of music would totally disagree, my favorite of their tunes is “Pick Poor Robin Clean.” I also think it is the best introduction to them:
One thing that is most interesting about this whole story is the centrality of Mack McCormick, an ethnomusicologist who knows more about this period than anyone else in the world. From the age of 16, he’s investigated 888 counties in the south. He is now 83 years old with tens of thousands of pages of interviews, photos, and much else documented. It is his life’s work, yet most of it has never been released because, having collected the data he finds himself under the crushing burden of trying to make sense of it all.
What’s interesting to me is that I know of McCormick because I went through a phase when I was crazy for Robert Johnson. I still am as far as his music goes; but I don’t especially care about his life story anymore. And the reason I don’t is because I read an interview with McCormick where he laid out the case that we probably don’t know anything about Johnson. Basically, regionally Johnson was such a star that there were a lot of Robert Johnson impersonators. Not in the sense we think of with Elvis Impersonators, but a lot of blues singers of that time just grabbed the name. So the story of Robert Johnson getting poisoned by a jealous husband? Maybe that was the guy who created those songs we love; and maybe not.
What I didn’t know was that this was just one small part of McCormick’s work. And in an interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan, McCormick revealed that he had interviewed a woman near Houston, TX in 1961 by the name of LV Thomas who used to be a professional blues musician. Through a lot of twists and turns, we learn that LV was in fact Elvie. She had always lived in Houston, so she wasn’t from Mississippi at all. Even though Geeshie is now the more famous one, Elvie was the veteran. Four years ago, I wrote a short article complaining that not only did Wikipedia not have a page on Elvie Thomas, when she was mentioned on the Geeshie Wiley page, it claimed she was a man! That should give you some idea of just how exciting this new information is.
Apparently, Wiley’s real name was Lillie Mae. It was LV who gave her the nickname Geeshie, which was slang for something like a country bumpkin. Geeshie seems to have come from Louisiana originally—or maybe even Mexico. She was in her early 20s when the recordings where made whereas Elvie was almost 40. So the power structure seems pretty clear. After those recordings, it seems they worked together for another four years when LV found God and decided that her music days were Satanic.
But the most interesting thing is that LV was a lesbian. I don’t know if that was why she was hiding in the church. Baptists have lots of funny ideas about the world. Regardless, one year after the recording was made, Geeshie murdered her husband—stabbed him in the neck. But we know she didn’t go to jail for it, because she and LV continued to perform together for three years after that. What’s more, in 1961, LV indicated that she knew where Geeshie was—west Texas, supposedly. It is speculated that Geeshie could have gotten off by claiming self-defense. She and her husband were black and the authorities didn’t much care regardless.
This raises all kinds of interesting questions. Could LV and Geeshie have been lovers? Did Geeshie kill her husband because he found out about their affair? Did LV find God after Geeshie dumped her? There are too many great novels that could be written with the fragmentary information that we have. But what’s most frustrating is that McCormick did another interview with LV during which she was apparently more forthcoming. And we don’t know at all what she said. (McCormick seems to be a bit difficult—but he’s allowed.)
At least for now, we have the music. Here is Geeshie singing the blood curdling “Skinny Leg Blues”:
And here is Elvie singing the strangely titled “Motherless Child Blues”:
Oh, one last thing. We do now have one picture of LV Thomas when she was in her 80s. That’s what’s at the top of this article.