John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote a long story for the New York Times Magazine published April 13 of this year, called the Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie, about looking for two women who recorded a handful of songs in 1931 (or maybe 1930) that still resonate today, but whose biographies have been lost. Sullivan first learned about them in Terry Zwigoff’s documentary about blues enthusiast and cartoonist, R. Crumb.
It is an oddly shaped bit of writing, partly because it starts out describing a void (the missing women), then floats through the world of serious blues enthusiasts, before actually getting into the actual story. These researchers have scoured the planet for old 78 recordings, and traveled from town to town trying to document the lives of the musicians who played this music locally but never came to national attention.
One unlikely hero in the story is Paramount Records, a large record company which was run by business folks, not enthusiasts. Untethered from aesthetic judgment, Paramount cut a wide swath through the south, recording everyone they could get their hands on, thus creating a sizeable library of the sounds of the time that would otherwise have been lost. It was in this sweep that they found Geeshie and Elvie, two blues guitar playing singers, and brought them to a recording studio outside of Milwaukee for their only recording session every.
Using material from perhaps our most tireless blues researcher, Mack McCormick, and aided by a young woman named Caitlin Rose Love, who hoped to spend her days working with McCormick, but didn’t, Sullivan gives shape to a vast and ungainly subculture, the art that spawned it, and some very particular stories about the blues life, the South and the ways history is filtered, found and sometimes lost.
You can play the music while reading the piece, but here’s Geeshie Wiley’s amazing Last Kind Words Blues.