” A Paul Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; his wings are caught in it with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
— Walter Benjamin, 1940
The New York Times recently published an evocative long-form article penned by John Jeremiah Sullivan about the enigmatic Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, woman blues musicians who haunt the archive with just six songs ever recorded, pressed on cheap, poor quality 78s by Paramount in 1930, as was the custom with “race” records not intended for mainstream markets.
I have been gripped on every listening by “Last Kind Words Blues” since I first heard it on the soundtrack to Crumb in the late ’90s (the same place Sullivan did), so I understood what Caitlyn Love, who did much of the the on-the-ground research for Sullivan, meant about its haunting her. From her blog:
When I first started doing research for John Jeremiah Sullivan for his article about Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, two women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace, I kept Wiley’s song “Last Kind Words Blues” on repeat for days. I hadn’t listened closely to her songs before this project, but I was aware of the mythology around them. Now, I found myself hearing something new: a haunting, a mystery.
I began my research splitting time between the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research, hunting among death, birth and marriage records, and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, looking through old maps, photographs and city-directory records. All of these materials provided context for the era that Lillie Mae (Geetchie) Wiley and L.V. Thomas lived through.
Eventually we learned a great deal about Thomas’s personal history. But leads to Wiley went nowhere. I made myself dizzy scrolling through rolls of microfilm to find any meaningful clue. She had disappeared. The trail only picked up once, but it picked up sharply.
“We may have found Geeshie’s grave yesterday. Not 100 percent but optimistic,” John wrote in an email to editors at the magazine.
Continue reading about Caitlyn Love’s quest HERE.
Read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s piece HERE – it’s beautifully written, and reflects in deep ways on the romance and violence of the archive.
And this is the short version of the story, from a Youtube comment posted last week:
It is now believed that Elvie (L.V. Thomas nee Grant) and Geechie (Lillie Mae Wiley) recorded all of their songs in Grafton, WI for Paramount in 1930. According to L.V., she would play and Geechie would “bass” behind her or she’d play (guitar) and Geechie would “bass” behind her. Thus, it might very well be Geechie we hear doing this fine guitar work. L.V. turned her back on the blues (life) and dedicated herself to her local church in Texas. Geeshie disappeared into the unknown. Recent records indicate she killed her husband with a knife in 1931. She may have changed her name/I.D. to avoid being found.
From the overlooked 1967 album, Winds of Change. Apart from Eric Burdon, the lineup of the band was entirely different from the band responsible for such hits as “House of the Rising Sun”, and the sound of this incarnation is more psychedelic.
Eric Burdon – vocals
John Weider – guitar, violin (later a member of FAMILY)
Vic Briggs – guitar, arrangement (AKA Antion Vikram Singh)
Danny McCulloch – bass (earlier a member of SCREAMIN’ LORD SUTCH)
Barry Jenkins – drums (earlier a member of THE NASHVILLE TEENS)
I picked this LP up recently for R10. It’s always fun when you find something you know about outside of channels where other people know about it too… I suppose that’s the addictive pleasure of digging.
GHOSTS examines the consequences of international gun trade in Africa while questioning our uncomfortable fetishism and worship for deadly weapons.
“Do you love your guns? YEAH! God? YEAH! Government? F*** YEAH!!” So sings Marilyn Manson of America’s rabid obsession with ballistic, religious and political weapons of mass destruction.
While America has its God and its government – and certainly no shortage of guns – it is from a handful of Africa’s most volatile nations whence any form of “god” has fled and whose anarcho-fascist kleptocracies reduce just about any notion of “government” to a brutal, bloody farce.
Ziman may have made America his home but it is the continent of his birth upon which his dark, disturbing vision continues to fall.
“GHOSTS” confronts the complex socioeconomic and political circumstances of the African arms trade – a multinational, multibillion-dollar industry that moves in one direction only – into Africa.
Ziman spent six months collaborating with African artisans to produce wool garments and beaded replicas of the iconic AK-47 used in the series.
“They have lived around crime and violence both in their adoptive South Africa and their native Zimbabwe,” Ziman says. “There is a sadness about the pictures—a loneliness and distance.”
Ziman’s work challenges the tragic cliché of our times: a war torn, violent Africa of militant and corrupt dictators, child soldiers, and unceasing civil wars fed by a growing international arms-trade.
For him, the series is a platform to discuss the corruption, greed and influence of foreign world superpowers who, eager for a stake in Africa’s abundant natural resources, provide weapons to dictatorial governments in trade, and often to opposing factions as well, ensuring a perpetual cycle of war for generations.
Ziman is a South African artist currently living and working in Los Angeles. He is the director of hundreds of music videos for superstars ranging from Ozzy Osbourne to Michael Jackson, and held the reigns as writer/director/producer for Hearts and Minds that premiered at the Berlin and Montreal Film Festivals, as well as Jerusalema, South Africa’s official entry to the 2008 Academy Award Foreign Language section.
Ziman is also well-known in the U.S. for his public art in Venice and is currently working on a private commission in Santa Monica.
An undubbed outtake from the June 1970 recording sessions for Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old), released as part of a rerelease of the album (Follow That Dream, 2008).
I’m not a fan of Elvis in general – I mostly find his delivery way too glib. But in this session I can hear his fragility… I can hear he feels what he is singing deeply, and he would give anything to get the glibness back.
I was just thinking that it’s a common trajectory that an artist starts out passionate and edgy, becoming increasingly jaded, cynical and safe post-40 (anyone been keeping half an eye on Bob Dylan lately?). I think it was the other way round for Elvis, which is why he eventually imploded. I think something similar happened to Michael Jackson. They stopped believing in their own illusions, and it killed them.