Like many geeks I watched Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary on underground cartoonist and musician Robert Crumb with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. You might recognize Crumb’s illustrations from the album artwork for Big Brother and The Holding Company’s record, Cheap Thrills.While Crumb’s work is fascinating in its own right, the most effecting part of the film for me was when Crumb played his copy of pre-war blues singer Geeshie Wiley’s devastating 78 “Last Kind Word Blues.” It blew my little mind. I would later try to impress a girl by playing a recording of the song. The scene is short, and worth a watch.
“When I listen to old music, that’s one of the few times I actually have a kind of a love for humanity. You hear the best part of the soul of the common people — their way of expressing their connection to eternity or whatever you wanna call it. Modern music doesn’t have that calamitous loss that people can’t express themselves that way anymore, you know?” -Robert Crumb (1994)
Yesterday the folks at the NY Times made my day with a cover article for the NYT magazine about a search for information on blueswomen Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. It includes an interview with the musicologist and researcher Mack McCormick, whose inquisitiveness and passion for American roots music is unparalleled. McCormick suggests that the photos believed to be of blues icon Robert Johnson may be someone else. The article is quite a long piece, but well worth the read.
“Although Geeshie Wiley may well have been the rural South’s greatest female blues singer and musician, almost nothing is known of her.”
If you’re short on time (or attention), do yourself a favor and at least watch the article’s introductory video of “Motherless Child Blues” by Elvie Thomas. The video and accompanying article can be found here: