The Greatest Blues Song of Them All

This is a sister essay to my piece on Skip James, which can be found here.

L.V. Thomas late in life, already immortal

L.V. Thomas was born in Houston, Texas on August 7, 1891. “I started playing guitar when I was about 11 years old,” she told researcher Robert “Mack” McCormick. “There were blues even back then. It wasn’t so big a part of music as later but there were blues. I can’t hardly name them — I don’t know that those songs had a name. One song was, ‘Oh, My Babe Take Me Back,’ and another was ‘Jack O’ Diamonds.’”

Soon Thomas was backing Alger “Texas” Alexander and probably meeting Paramount Records’ big star, Blind Lemon Jefferson. “I remember one night was a big party,” she recalled, “when Sippie Wallace came back to town and all the songsters came together. It was like a contest of a kind. Everyone sang a number, and the audience would call for who they wanted to hear some more and I remember they pulled everyone out but me. Seem like they wanted to hear me most of all.”

In 1930, Thomas slipped into immortality. “The way I came to make records,” she told McCormick, “was that I went around a lot with a girl named Lillie Mae Wiley. She was called Geetchie Wiley. Mr. Laibly of the Paramount record company came to her house one time, and she carried him on over to see me. He listened to me play, and he listened to her, and then he said he’d like for us to go up North and make some records. We knew about his company. I think we both had some Paramount records, and we’d heard of others going up there. I was the older. I was about 38 or so then, so I said all right.” Wiley was probably in her early 20s.

In March, the two women traveled by segregated train up to Grafton, Wisconsin. There they were ensconced in a small, thickly-carpeted room “draped with burlap and blankets,” offered a little bootleg liquor, and began to play when the red light came on. One of the only six known songs the duo recorded was “Last Kind Words.” Wiley sang.

The last kind words I hear by daddy say

Lord, the last kind words I hear my daddy say

If I die, if I die in the German war

I want you to send my money

Send it to my mother-in-law

If I get killed, if I get killed

Please don’t bury my soul

I’d try just leave me out

Let the buzzards eat me whole

There are few vocalists so simultaneously resigned and defiant. Wiley sings about her mother and father and lover with a slight detachment, as if watching a film about disaster. “My mother told me just before she died,” Wiley sings in her strange, attenuated phrasing, “Lord, precious daughter — don’t you be so wild.”

“She’d sing one, I’d sing one,” Thomas remembered, “and each of us would bass for the other.” Thomas’s bass part on “Last Kind Words” consists of quarter notes plucked on an open E string, tuned down to a D.

“Last Kind Words” is in the key of D minor, and it’s modal. This, to my mind, means only one thing: Geetchie Wiley probably saw Skip James perform and learned his lowered version of Henry Stuckey’s open minor tuning, because that is what is used on “Last Kind Words.” Wiley makes good use of the unison harmonies, played on the three high strings, afforded by this tuning. Thomas’ insistent same-note bass part underscores the fact that, in this world, there is no progression or resolution, only tension.

Skip James, 1932

The two women certainly didn’t hear the open D minor tuning from records: James wouldn’t record for almost another year; Stuckey never recorded at all. Thomas admitted she didn’t like to travel much, which leaves Wiley as the one to have seen James perform. Musician Ishmon Bracey claimed to have met Wiley in Jackson, Mississippi in the late 1920s — when Stuckey and James were performing there — and said she was from Natchez.

“When I first met up with her, she was all alone,” Thomas recalled. “She was from some country place and living here in Houston when we got together.” It’s probably for this reason that Thomas nicknamed her partner “Geetchie,” an affectionate nickname meaning, basically, “yokel.” There is some evidence that Wiley was from Louisiana, which would still have made her proximal to Mississippi. Jackson was a known gathering place for itinerant blues musicians. It would be strange for Wiley to not have visited there.

In her interview, Thomas thought “Last Kind Words” might have been one of hers, but the Paramount label credits Wiley as the songwriter. This makes sense. Wiley was young enough to have a father who could have served in the First World War, while Thomas was closer to that father’s age.

I don’t have a crumb of proof for proposing the Wiley/James encounter, beyond the certainty that “Last Kind Words” was written and performed in the open D minor tuning used, almost exclusively, by James. The only other blues musician at the time known to use that “unnatural” tuning was Stuckey, who played in E. To my mind, there must have been a crossing of paths at some dance function or country supper, most likely in Jackson, Mississippi, in the mid-to-late 1920s.

It’s possible that Wiley came upon the tuning herself, but if so probably would have worked that fertile soil more fervently: “Last Kind Words” is the only song the duo recorded in a modal minor.

In any case, the most compelling evidence for this assertion is how the key and modality are employed. “Last Kind Words” can darken a room just as much as any James recording; its world is the same peculiar combination of dreamscape and bitter reality. “I went to the depot, I looked up at the stars,” Wiley sings. “Cried, ‘some train don’t come, there’ll be some walking done.’” Modal music in a minor key provided the bleak setting for songs like “Last Kind Words” and “Devil Got My Woman” to be made manifest. Wiley’s lyrical statement is as personal, and desolate, as any James made. She uses his vehicle to express it.

Thomas remembered recording “dozens of songs” in Grafton over the course of four consecutive days — not dissimilar to James’s memory of his own Paramount session the following year. It doesn’t make sense to pay the travel and accommodation expenses required to bring two artists from Texas to Wisconsin, only for them to record six songs. Perhaps those unheard masters, also credited to “Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas,” were also sold for scrap, or tossed into the freezing river after the label shut down.

“I didn’t hear too much back,” Thomas said of Paramount. “We never did get any royalty money or anything from those records. Just what they paid then.”

Thomas and Wiley parted ways in 1933. Thomas died in 1979; Wiley’s fate is obscure to history. “Last I heard of Lillie Mae was about four or five years ago,” Thomas remembered in 1961. “She was supposed to be in West Texas then.”

I was never a blues enthusiast or a record collector. I don’t love Skip James, Geetchie Wiley and L.V. Thomas’ music because of the vanishing scarcity of their records — although, these days, if there’s one copy of a recording there can be infinite virtual copies. To me, and to most people who have heard “Last Kind Words” (I decline to use the “Blues” addendum to the title, as it was always applied by white label executives to denote race music), the song has a before-and-after effect. I was mostly the same person before I heard “Last Kind Words,” then something changed. Back in the day when it was genuinely hard to get a copy of “Last Kind Words,” it was a music enthusiast’s secret handshake; a sign of occult knowledge. Even now, when the song is just a click away, you still must inhabit its desolate world. It only exists in ours as a portal, which you must go through and return altered.

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.

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