I feel with some passion that what we truly are is private, and almost infinitely complex, and ambiguous, and both external and internal, and double- or triple- or multiply natured, and largely mysterious even to ourselves; and furthermore that what we are is only part of us, because identity, unlike “identity”, must include what we do.
And I think that to find oneself and every aspect of this complexity reduced in the public mind to one property that apparently subsumes all the rest (“gay”, “black”, “Muslim”, whatever) is to be the victim of a piece of extraordinary intellectual vulgarity. Literally vulgar: from vulgus. It’s crowd-thought.
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 Crumbin 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.
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.
I remember this song and video came out at the end of my Standard 4 year – the first year I had ever been to a proper teenage “disco” (how scary and thrilling). I remember thinking her thrashing around for the whole song in that bunched-up sheet was silly… And that she was in love with that poncy Amadeus guy was silly too. Lunatics. And yet the chorus would be going round and round in my head for months, entwined with an interminable summer holiday yearning for I-didn’t-quite-know-what. This and the Bangles’ Eternal Flame.
John Tavener composed this specifically for Björk. She chants a prayer from the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, “Prayer of The Heart”, accompanied by the Brodsky Quartet.
“Prayer of The Heart” is a short, simple prayer that has been widely used, taught and discussed throughout the history of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It is, for the Orthodox, one of the most profound and mystical prayers, and is often repeated endlessly as part of personal ascetic practice. It is particularly used in the practice of the spiritual life known as hesychasm. Based on Christ’s injunction in the Gospel of Matthew, “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray”, hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God. The prayer is particularly esteemed by the spiritual fathers of this tradition as a method of opening the heart.
Greek: Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με (τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν).
English: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me (a sinner).
“The process of growth is, it seems, the art of falling down. Growth is measured by the gentleness and awareness with which we once again pick ourselves up, the lightness with which we dust ourselves off, the openness with which we continue and take the next unknown step, beyond our edge, beyond our holding, into the remarkable mystery of being.”
I had always believed in Andre Breton’s freedom, to write as one thinks, in the order and disorder in which one feels, to follow sensations and absurd correlations of events and images, to trust to the new realms they lead one into. “The cult of the marvelous.” Also the cult of the unconscious leadership, the cult of mystery, the evasion of false logic. The cult of the unconscious as proclaimed by Rimbaud. It is not madness. It is an effort to transcend the rigidities and the patterns made by the rational mind.
Winter, 1931-1932, from The Diary of Anaïs Nin , Volume One 1931-1934