I think most of us feel like we know our personal music histories pretty well. Some of us are interested in the road to today as viewed through the musical trails of the past. Influences seem to fall back far beyond our own sight.
Every once in a great while a story emerges of the lost chord in the chain. Such is the story of Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. Their music from the 1930’s tells the pain and heartache of the times as well as any. And their influence cannot be denied but their personal story has remained untold.
“In the world of early-20th-century African-American music and people obsessed by it, who can appear from one angle like a clique of pale and misanthropic scholar-gatherers and from another like a sizable chunk of the human population, there exist no ghosts more vexing than a couple of women identified on three ultrarare records made in 1930 and ’31 as Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. There are musicians as obscure as Wiley and Thomas, and musicians as great, but in none does the Venn diagram of greatness and lostness reveal such vast and bewildering co-extent. In the spring of 1930, in a damp and dimly lit studio, in a small Wisconsin village on the western shore of Lake Michigan, the duo recorded a batch of songs that for more than half a century have been numbered among the masterpieces of prewar American music, in particular two, Elvie’s “Motherless Child Blues” and Geeshie’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” twin Alps of their tiny oeuvre, inspiring essays and novels and films and cover versions, a classical arrangement.”
Mack McCormack has had more success finding information on these blues great than most. His telling of those times is fascinating.
Read the whole story from the New York Times here.