Last kind word blues
Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas.
This weeks tune of the week is the darkest yet most beautiful blues tune by fairly unknown blues singers/guitarists Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. By darkest I mean it is totally about death. Everyone dies and in the penultimate verse referencing the Mississippi River, even the singer is dead as she can see her own face on the opposite bank of the river rather than as in most blues tunes where the Mississippi is mentioned, it’s always their lovers face they see on the other side of the river. The final verse is also pretty unusual as well. Crossing the deep blue sea in blues speak is dying and is so in this song as well. However, in all other blues songs, the singer hopes to meet their lover after death but not so in this tune as Geeshie sings “I may not see you again cross the deep blue sea”. Interestingly, of the very little known history of Geeshie, it is known she stabbed her husband in the neck two years after she recorded this song. No records exist as to the circumstances nor if she was charged or imprisoned or she just evaded the police.
The tune also has a beautiful melody with unusual guitar rifts for country blues, minor chords which were never used at that time in the blues and the 2 guitar format.
I came across this tune in January this year while researching another tune of the week on 02/12/21 Mole in the ground. The blues tune was in the link I put up for Greil Marcus discussing mole in the grounds meanings but his lecture also covered this lovely tune at 19mins.
Geeshie and Elvie were near enough totally unknown until a documentary film called Crumb was released in 1994. The film documented cartoon artist Robert Crumb and his brothers. He and his brothers were avid record collectors in the 1960’s who went door to door buying old records from poorer white/black districts in the states. He has amassed an enormous amount of old 78 vinyls many of which feature relatively unknown artists. Last kind words blues, sung by Geeshie and Elvie begins about 7 minutes into the film Crumb.
The tune was also used in the soundtrack for the excellent 2004 film documentary , Searching for the wrong eyed Jesus. In the film, David Johanson and Larry Salzman are the musicians covering the tune. Incidentally, the film features some great music with lee sexton telling the story how his father had his hands blown off in the mines. Lee also plays several tunes on his banjo.
Back to the the last kind word blues:
There are only thought to be 10 copies of this particular Geeshie Wiley record still available worldwide.
I love this tune but can only find one clawhammer version out there on you tube. The player here, who can actually sing unlike me, plays a similar bass line Geeshie used when she sang it with L.V. Thomas in the duet.
In my tab, I play similar to Elvies melody line. I wonder what his version and mine would sound like together?
Apart from the above, I can’t find any other banjo versions.
Here’s the best guitar cover I can find, a mighty fine version by Christine Pizzuti, who’s name ironically on YouTube is Iplaybanjonow. She manages to combine Geeshie and Alvie’s guitar work together on her guitar and sings the song beautifully. I’ve contacted her to see if she can play it on banjo but havnt heard back so far!
My tab for the tune is based on her guitar playing and is out of standard G tuning but tuned down to F. I’ve included my tab below. It needs a bit of explanation as It appears a tricky tab in clawhammer but actually isn’t. The blues don’t lend themselves to clawhammer style too well. In the original with Geeshie and Alvie, both play guitar, Elvie playing the melody and Geeshie the grungy bass line. To replicate this it would probably be easier in 2 or 3 finger style banjo but even then, you havnt got the deep bass notes a guitar has. Clawhammer drives on the beat pushing a tune foreword but for the blues you have to make it sound like it’s slowing down even through the tempo is constant. Therefore in my tab a good proportion of the tune breaks the basic clawhammer rule of using the M finger on the beat and thumb off the beat.. Large sections of my tab have the M finger hitting the strings on the off beat. Also in the 2nd part of the intro and the verse part of the tab, I use a unusual double hit of the strings with the thumb sounding the 3rd string as I slide with my M finger on the first and 2nd strings. This is supposed to give the repetitive bass sound used in blues guitar playing. It looks a bit complicated on the tab but actually isn’t...... you hit the 1st string with your M finger and as you slide up to next fret, you sound the third string with your thumb. It gives an effect similar to Geeshies and Christine Pizzuti’s version.
This is my take on it, playing along on my banjo made in the same year as its thought Geeshie Wiley was born, 1908. I play the melody then play along with Christine Pizzuti’s version.
I apologise in advance if Christine stumbles across this post.
For those of you brave enough to listen, I’ve also done a solo version of me and my banjo but I warn you the singing is painful as were the expressions on my face so it’s lucky I put my phone down the way round when recording it so the background is just the back of the music stand!
And here’s a bit of a walk thru of how to play it as per my tab
Geeshie Wiley and L. V. (credited as Elvie) Thomas are two virtually unknown blueswomen who played together in the 1920’s and were recorded in 1930. There is no known photograph of Geeshie, and very little is known about her life. The only photograph of ‘Elvie’ is a Polaroid taken in a nursing home some weeks before she died. We know a little more about her, though we don’t even know her given names. Nearly everything we know about them is from the work of musicologist Robert ‘Mac’ McCormick, who tracked down and got a short interview with L. V. in the 1960s.
L. V. Thomas was born L. V. Grant on August 7, 1891, in Houston Texas and lived there her entire life. It’s likely her mother, Cora, was unmarried at the time. When L. V. was around 10 or 11, her mother married Chris King who played mandolin, banjo and guitar at saloons and country suppers. L. V. left school after the fifth grade, and was playing guitar by age 11 which she picked up from some of the neighbourhood boys. By 17 she was also playing at the country suppers – picnics held on a Saturday that would go all day and all night.
At the age of 19 – 1910 – she was in the Harris County Jail for an unknown offence. She had been working as a dishwasher, but the reasons and length of her imprisonment are unknown. The next thing we know is sometime in the late 20’s she was well and truly heavily involved with the Houston music scene. She frequently played with the somewhat famous singer Alger ‘Texas’ Alexander, who played with Blind Lemon Jefferson and was recorded from 1927 to 1939, and out-sang the star blues singer Sippie Wallace at a party of musicians. She seems to have had a very short lived marriage to a man from which she took the surname Thomas. Sometime in the early 20s she met Lillie Mae Wiley, who she called “Geetchie”.
Lillie Mae Wiley is a ghost of blues history. Almost nothing is known about her, and what is known is unreliable. She was likely born in 1908 in Louisiana, as Lillie Mae Scott, and sometime probably before 1920 joined a travelling medicine show as a musician. Here she met (and some say married) Memphis Minnie’s ex-husband Casey Bill Weldon. She ended up in Jackson, Mississippi, and mixed with some of the earliest Delta blues artists. Ishmon Bracey recalls she was from Natchez, Mississippi and she was romantic with Charlie McCoy. The bassist and singer Herbert Wily claimed Geeshie was a distant cousin (perhaps through marriage) and her family farmed in South Carolina. Geeshie married a Thornton Wiley sometime before 1930.
In the early 20s, Geeshie was in Houston, where she met L. V. Wiley. They started playing together, developed a reputation and were in some demand as a duo for hire for parties and dances. Arthur Laibly, sales and recording manager for Paramount Records, would tour the country hoping to discover new talent. He heard of the duo and knocked on Geeshie’s door in early 1930. Geeshie took him over to L. V.’s house, where he invited them to go to the studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, to make some records.
On or about March 30, 1930, Geeshie and L.V recorded at least 4 tracks – one would sing and play bass notes on the guitar, the other would play lead guitar, and on one track they both sang. Two of the tracks were released under “Geeshie Wiley” on a 78, the other under “Elvie Thomas” with the B side under “Wiley & Thomas”. Two other tracks were recorded and released on a 78 under “Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas” the following year, and although L. V. recalls they only ever had one recording session, Paramount lists the recording time as March 30, 1931. L.V. recalls they spelt her name as “Elvie” on the records, and used a misspelling of her nick name for Lillie Mae – “Geeshie”. The record company chose the name of the songs – years later L.V. didn’t recognise the name “Last Kind Words” as a song of theirs, but agreed it was them when it was played to her.
In 1931, Geeshie’s husband, Thornton Wiley, was murdered. The cause of death is listed as “knife wound inflicted by Lillie Mae Scott”. It appears that that Geeshie and Thornton had earlier separated, had run into each other at a dance in Fort Bend County, and Geeshie had slammed a knife into his neck. We know the murder was reported to the police, but we don’t know what happened after that: was Geeshie arrested and cleared due to self-defence? Did she and L. V. run from the law?
The only thing we know is that 1933 was the last time L.V. saw Geeshie. After playing a gig in a town in Oklahoma, thought to be Checotah, it appears the two had a falling out and they went their separate ways. L.V. went back to Houston, and Geeshie disappeared. L.V. recalls hearing about her sometime in the 1960’s, supposedly out somewhere in West Texas.
L.V. took an active interest in the church in the Acres Homes area of Houston, and left behind the lifestyle of a blues musician. She lived in the area until she died, reportedly dressing like a man, rolling her own cigarettes, carrying a pistol and living in a house without any running water. She had been living with a woman named Sarah, identified in a census as a cousin, in the 1920’s, who married and moved on. But the marriage broke down and they were back together from at least 1940 until L. V. signed her death certificate in 1967. She cared for an nephew whose mother abandoned him for years, and who called her “Slack” – the same name Geeshie refers to her at the beginning of “Pick Poor Robin Clean”. Some members of her family believed she retreated from social life, except the church, due to her ‘lifestyle’.
L. V. died on May 20, 1979 and is buried in her church of 50 years, the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Acres Homes, Houston, Texas.
As for Lillie Mae Scott, known to the world as Geeshie, she remains a ghost.
Geeshie Wiley was an American country blues singer and guitar player who recorded six songs for Paramount Records, issued on three records in April 1930. According to the blues historian Don Kent, Wiley "may well have been the rural Souths greatest female blues singer and musician". Little is known of her life, and there are no known photographs of her. She may have been born Lillie Mae Boone, later Lillie Mae Scott.
Last Kind Words has quite a unique structure for early blues songs. It uses the I, IV and V chords familiar to all blues, but the imagination and creativity used creates one of the most beautiful blues pieces ever recorded.
It’s played in E on guitar, in standard tuning (maybe down half a step) and features the use of minor chords which was quite strange for the time. The progression is Am, then an extended E section, into a repeated Bm with a natural seventh. It has two half bars of E after each Bm7.
It was played with two guitars . Geeshie Wiley singing and playing just the bass notes of the chords, and L.V. Thomas playing the melody. Because of this the bass is really pronounced, and that makes it hard to re-create the same sound on just one guitar. The video, from the great IplayBanjoNow youtube channel has it being played in F# instead of E and using B7 – a major chord – instead of the Bm7 of the original.
Last Kind Words Blues - Geeshie Wiley
E position, standard tuning (guitar).
Banjo : standard G tuning (maybe tuned down to F or E to give a bit more bass as banjo hasn’t got the low bass string guitar has)
The last kind words I heared my daddy say
Lord, the last kind words I heared my daddy say
Fiy die, fiy die in the German war
I want you to send my body, send it to my mother'n law
If I get killed, if I get killed, please don't bury my soul
I cry just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole
When you see me comin' look 'cross the rich man's field
If I don't bring you flour I'll bring you bolted meal
I went to the depot, I looked up at the stars
Cried, some train don't come, Lord, be some walkin' done
My mama told me, just before she died
Lord, *sister*, daughter, don't you be so wild
The Mississippi river, you know it's deep and wide
I can stand right here, see my face on the other side.
What you do to me baby it never gets outta me
I may not see you after, cross' the deep blue sea.
In April 1930, Wiley traveled with the singer and guitarist Elvie Thomas from Houston, Texas to Grafton, Wisconsin, to make recordings for Paramount Records. Wiley recorded "Last Kind Words Blues" and "Skinny Leg Blues", singing and accompanying herself on guitar, with Thomas providing additional guitar accompaniment. Thomas also recorded two songs, "Motherless Child Blues" and "Over to My House," with Wiley playing guitar and singing harmony. Some sources suggest that in March 1931 Wiley and Thomas returned to Grafton and recorded "Pick Poor Robin Clean" and "Eagles on a Half." Steve Leggett at Allmusic states, "Wileys vocal on "Last Kind Word Blues" is by turns weary, wise, angry, defiant, despairing, even wistful, and is simply one of the best performances in early country blues." It is believed that fewer than ten original copies of Wileys records have survived.
2. Biographical uncertainties
Little is known about Wiley, and the few details of her life provided by various sources are inconsistent. "Geeshie" sometimes spelled "Geechie" or "Geetchie" was probably a nickname. There have been several conjectures about her life. The musician Ishmon Bracey, a contemporary of Wileys, stated that she came from Natchez, Mississippi, and was romantically linked with the Delta blues musician Papa Charlie McCoy. It has also been suggested that in the 1920s she worked in a medicine show in Jackson, Mississippi, and that she may have married Casey Bill Weldon after his divorce from Memphis Minnie. The singer and bass player Herbert Wiley, of Oxford, Mississippi, stated that she was a cousin on his fathers side and that her family had farmed in South Carolina; his father had told him that she died in 1938 or 1939, and he believed that she may have been buried in the family burial plot in Oxford. The musicologist and genealogist Eric S. LeBlanc suggested that her name was Wadie May Wiley and that she was born near Oxford in 1906. Research by Robert "Mack" McCormick was developed and publicized by John Jeremiah Sullivan in the New York Times in 2014. McCormick told Sullivan that he had visited Wileys former home and spoken to members of her immediate family when he was conducting fieldwork in Oklahoma in the 1950s. McCormick also interviewed Wileys recording partner, L. V. "Elvie" Thomas, in Texas in 1961. Thomas began performing with Wiley in the early 1920s and remembered her as Lillie Mae Wiley; she claimed to have given Wiley her nickname. The nickname "Geechie" spelled in various ways was common among people from around coastal South Carolina and Georgia it is also an alternate name for the Gullah ethnic group of that region, but more generally was an affectionate nickname for a young woman of rural origins in the American South. Thomas said that a few years before the interview that is, in the 1950s she had heard that Wiley was living in West Texas. Later research reported by Sullivan suggests that Wiley was born in Louisiana on November 14, 1908, and that she was the same Lillie Mae Scott who stabbed her husband, Thornton Wiley, to death in Houston in 1931. Wiley was nonetheless performing again with Thomas about 1933, on their last tour together. According to McCormick, Thomas said, "I haven’t seen. We’d gone out playing around together, traveling, and I left her up there and came on back." Sullivan also spoke to a Houston musician, John D. "Don" Wilkerson, who claimed to remember Wiley and "implied that there was something funny about her background. He said that shed been maybe Mexican or something.” According to researcher Caitlin Love, who worked with Sullivan, Lillie Mae Wiley nee Boone died from a head injury in 1950, and was buried with her mother Cathrine Nixson in Brushy Cemetery in Burleson County, Texas.
For a more detailed history of Geeshie and Elvie see this link from The New York Times magazine, 2014.
Here are some other notable covers of the tune on YouTube.
Carolina chocolate drops version, unfortunatly Rhiannon dosnt play it on her banjo. . youtu.be/HVjxOw3ucvs
Sam Bennett’s ghost riders which has a neat drum accompaniment youtu.be/PxTKHc8w7dA
Tiger Rose acoustic sessions.... guitar and double bass
Geeshies version again.
My tab. I goes a little wrong towards the end notes per bar wise but the notes are all correct. Never been the best at writing tabs out!!
Edited by - Hay-on-Wye on 04/22/2021 22:05:27
Thanks. Great choice!
One of my favorite songs on the Crumb soundtrack CD!
Thanks for the song and for the detailed essay. It’s a treat to read.
Thanks Wally, perhaps you’ll have a go at it on one of your beautiful home made instruments
Neill, you come up with the most esoteric, but interesting tunes, and perform them up to par yourself. Your write-up is outstanding. It was fun to see that a banjo buddy who goes by Jeepee Dee was the player in the other video you found and that you contacted him. The performance by Christine Pizzuti was fantastic.
Using the slowdowner I tuned to notes that matched Geeshie's guitar (and was actually glad to learn that she had a "real" name, prettier than "Geeshie", though said to be an endearing nickname). The tuning became eEGBE and matches an open Em chord. Geeshie was quite a talented blues singer and guitarist. Her solo was rather complex to figure out, but here it is. I use a lot of drop thumbing, as opposed to sliding. The dotted notes are closer to the guitar's timing, though not exactly. On the midi they sound like a Scottish snap and don't quite match the guitar. Note that the seventh measure is crooked, with only three beats, matching the guitar solo.
Very good Janet. Captures the essence of Geeshies original. I couldn’t figure what the guitars were doing on the original as there were 2 playing. From the research I did, it appeared that Geeshie played the bass line on her guitar while singing and Elvie played the melody and variations. So I couldn’t figure what I should be playing. That’s why I chose to work out what Christine Pizzuti was doing as I could follow that better and could play along with her.
Wonder if she ever got around to getting that ironing done. Mind you, if I could play and sing like her I’d leave the ironing as well
I couldn’t figure out the grungy bass the tune it started with. From what has been written, that would be Geeshie playing that. Has an ominous doomed foreboding finality to it. You can tell from the opening bars that the tune will not have a happy ending
I have only kind words to say about this TOTW.
I like this kind of old Blues, but it is difficult to play on the banjo, especially in clawhammer. My approach to this kind of tunes is usually to use 2- or 3-finger picking. I am gladly surprised how both Neill and Janet managed to get the Blues out of the clawhammer banjo! Thanks!
Thanks Jan for the most kind words.
I am really enjoying this one, trying to figure it out. Please excuse my ignorance, Neill but you say -
My tab for the tune is based on her guitar playing and is out of standard G tuning but tuned down to F.
Does this mean you are not tuned to G tuning? (Sorry but music theory still eludes me).
It’s standard g tuning, ie gDGBD, but all notes tuned down two semi tones making it fCFAC. Or tune the standard g tuning to suit your voice.
Thanks, I will tune down. I ask because I tend to have to figure a tune out a little by ear and eye before I refer to the tab, as I find if I start at the tab I just get confused. So I picked out a little by ear but then the tab was not where I expected it to be on the fretboard. Might well be that my ear is mistaken, as it sometimes is. Thanks
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