They Wanted to Hear Me Most of All
When I think about the Blues, I think about Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. Once the celebrated secret of record collectors and other music devotees, these two amazing womyn have become more mainstream, especially after this definitive New York Times article (I highly recommend listening to all their songs, which are found at the end of the article) came out. The first time I heard Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas was, like many, in “Crumb” by Terry Zwigoff and I was 12 years old. The song, “Last Kind Words Blues”, blew me away in the most silent yet explosive way. The original recordings done by these womyn are exceedingly rare and the only reason anyone has access to the music at all is because of the Internet.
The still pretty murky but once insanely murky story of Geeshie and Elvie made me think of Patricia Hill Collins, Intersecting Oppressions, and her identifications of “three primary safe spaces for black womyn”. “Black womyn’s relationships with one another” is particularly interesting for the story of Geeshie and Elvie because the only existing recordings of them were done together. These two womyn were known for their powerful voice and masterful guitar playing, respectively. As two musically skilled womyn living in Texas during the 1930’s, their camaraderie makes sense. In the beginning of their song “Pick Poor Robin Clean”, they call back and forth to each other in a way that is so natural and knowing, you can sense the comfort they have with each other. Revelations that the two womyn may have been in a romantic relationship during their recording session make this song (and all their songs) even more complex.
As identified by Collins, the other two safe spaces are “the black womyn’s blues tradition and the voices of black womyn authors”. While the music of Geeshie and Elvie are clearly in the blues tradition, they are also authors. Elvie wrote the lyrics to “Motherless Child Blues” and Geeshie wrote the lyrics to “Last Kind Word Blues”. These two womyn used music and verse to convey messages of loss, revenge and life. Due to not only their race but also their socioeconomic status, the stories of womyn like Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas would be lost to history and almost were. However, Geeshie and Elvie were able to make their stories immortal through music and verse. As Collins states, poetry was a means of expression for those denied “political or academic power”, both of which Geeshie and Elvie had no access to. However, they used concise language to explain a story and utilized the depth of music to convey the intensity of emotions. In a song they wrote together called “Over to my House”, they finish with:
“When I was sittin’ in my parlor, just a strummin’ and playin’ I wasn’t too drunk to hear the backdoor slam Come ‘round over to my house, ain’t nobody here but, I’m cryin’, ain’t nobody here but me”
I appreciate the autobiographical nature of lines like this because they are so personal but also simple in their telling of a persons actions. They are the lyrics of a non-gendered agent who is possessed to do their own bidding, nothing like the lyrics that would be given for a womyn to sing. Because Geeshie and Elvie wrote their own lyrics, they were able to live out what Collins identifies as the purpose of a safe space for black womyn: self-definition. Since these womyn created their own definition of self, they were also free to rewrite those conditions. Through their words and music, Geeshie and Elvie were able to document the lives they were leading at the time, providing a living record.
The problem with creating a record, however, is that people may listen to it. Long after these womyn decided that their music would no longer be a part of their lives, separate or together, white audiophiles and historians demanded more of them and because these womyn were no longer alive, what we got was more of their history. It almost felt dirty reading the New York Times article about Geeshie and Elvie. I felt superstitious about unearthing so much about the lives of womyn we didn’t know and who didn’t want to be known.