Geeshie Wiley: Last Kind Words Blues

Written by Elliott Hurwitt

Music Historian

In category: Song of the Day

Published November 6, 2018

As we prepare for W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues with program consultant Elliott Hurwitt, we revisit his first week hosting Song of the Day. This song was originally posted on October 27, 2015.

We don’t know a whole lot about Geeshie Wiley, who recorded “Last Kind Words Blues” and a handful of other songs, except that she worked in a duo with L.V. Thomas, who was a lesbian, and they were probably a couple. Wiley didn’t have a lot of luck with men; she is known to have killed her second husband with a knife in 1931, then pretty much vanished into the mists of time, probably returning to Texas, from whence she had journeyed north to record. She and L.V. entered a Grafton, Wisconsin studio of Paramount Records (a division of the Wisconsin Chair Company) with their guitars and cut this record when Wiley was around 22, in 1930; they made 5 other sides, some not released till the following year.

“Last Kind Words” isn’t strictly speaking a blues, but it represents song traditions that are surely older, and embodies blues feeling, hard luck and trouble. It is particularly strong in the eerie, the power to chill the blood: so, wishing you all a [late] Happy Halloween. The text, as with so many blues, is a jumble of multiple earlier songs, some of which must go back at least to the World War I period: “If I die, in the German war…” is a tip-off, and many of the other lines are found in numerous blues from all over the U.S.  Formerly very obscure, this record has become a cult item since it appeared in Terry Zwigoff’s biographical film Crumb in 1994John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2014 article in The New York Times magazine, “The Ballad of Geeshie and L.V.,” brought these inadequately known blues artists to still wider renown. Most recently, Greil Marcus provides a fine discussion of “Last Kind Words” in his latest book, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, where Geeshie is spotlighted alongside Bob Dylan and the great folklorist Bascomb Lamar Lunsford. It’s about time, too.

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Elliott Hurwitt is a music historian with a background in classical music, now specializing in African-American music of the 1890s-1940s. His publications on W.C. Handy include the Dover edition (2012) of Handy’s seminal 1926 Blues, An Anthology, for which Elliott wrote a new introduction and re-edited the song selections to include songs that had come and gone between the 1926 version, Handy’s revised edition (1949) and the versions following his death (1972/1990).  Elliott also added historically important blues from 1912-1919 by Handy’s friends and rivals for the first time in the Anthology.  Elliott won the Barry Brook Dissertation Prize when he got his PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center. He has appeared on NPR and Public Radio International, and is chief historical adviser on the new documentary Mister Handy’s Blues.  Elliott lives in New York City with his wife Elizabeth, Development Director of Music From Copland House.

Elliott is serving as the program consultant on the upcoming NYFOS program W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues on November 14, 2018 at Merkin Hall in NYC. Get your tickets today!

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