Today’s featured artist in the Any Woman’s Blues series is Geeshie Wiley, who recorded with last month’s featured artist Elvie Thomas. Wiley & Thomas recorded a total of six songs at two separate sessions in Paramount’s Grafton, Wisconsin recording studio (where such better known Delta artists as Charlie Patton, Willie Brown & Son House also recorded around the same time).
Wiley's signature song is “Last Kind Words,” a masterful if lyrically bleak song about a soldier in World War I. Wiley’s singing & the guitar work on this song have both received high praise. As far as I can determine the song is played as tho the guitar were in standard tuning & the song were being played in E, but the guitar is in fact tuned down a semitone (or possibly a bit more) so the song’s actual key is E flat (or a rather flat E/rather sharp D.) In any case, you can read more about the guitar playing on “Last Kind Words” here on the Acoustic Guitar Forum.
Not much is known about Geeshie Wiley’s biography, tho there’s a bit more information about her than about her partner Elvie Thomas. Interestingly, the name Geeshie (or Geechie) is often associated with the Gullah, who historically have lived in South Carolina & Georgia. Here’s a dime store description of their culture from Wikipedia:
The Gullah are known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States. They speak an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and significant influences from African languages in grammar and sentence structure. The Gullah language is related to Jamaican Creole, Barbadian Dialect, Bahamian Dialect, and the Krio language of Sierra Leone in West Africa. Gullah storytelling, cuisine, music, folk beliefs, crafts, farming and fishing traditions, all exhibit strong influences from West and Central African cultures.
Ishman Bracey, a Delta bluesman of some note, claimed to have known Wiley & said she was from Natchez, Mississippi. Bracey also claimed that she was linked romantically with Charlie McCoy, the great mandolin & guitar player who partner with Bracey & Tommy Johnson. Bracey said Wiley “could play on the guitar as good as on that record,” that she also played ukulele, & that she had performed in medicine shows. The great Memphis-based blues guitarist Robert Wilkins also had some recollection of Wiley.
Sadly, we have only six songs by which to judge Geeshie Wiley’s & Elvie Thomas’ talents, tho it seems clear from those songs that those talents were considerable. Why so few songs? It’s impossible to say for sure, but 1930 & 1931 were the beginnings of the Great US Depression, & the recording industry was very hard hit by this. The so-called “race records” boom of the 1920s went bust in the Depression, as labels that relied on these recordings either went under or turned to types of music that would produce more reliable income. It’s also true that—with the notable exception of Blind Lemon Jefferson—so-called “country blues” artists simply didn’t sell as many records back in the day as either the classic women blues singers like Bessie Smith, Ida Cox et al, or more urban & “smooth” musicians like Lonnie Johnson & Leroy Carr. Elijah Wald discusses this in his excellent book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson & the Invention of the Blues;Wald produces playlists from various Delta jukeboxes in 1941—with fascinating & surprising results.
By the way: a bit off topic, but please consider swinging by the Ms. Magazine blog today & checking out my good friend (& occasional Robert Frost's Bano contributor) Audrey Bilger's follow-up interview with Twitter sensation Feminist Hulk (@feministhulk.) Audrey interviewed this big, green, purple-shorts-wearing, Judith Butler-reading phenomenon last year, & the interview was the second most popular feature on the Ms blog in 2010. This time around, we're all hoping Audrey & Feminist Hulk are #1!
In the meantime, hope you enjoy Geeshie Wiley’s great music!