Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley aren't exactly household names, but they recorded a batch of old country-blues songs that scholars consider masterpieces. What's vexing is that Thomas and Wiley totally fell off the map, gone from history despite decades of research. Enter John Sullivan, who, writing for the New York Times Magazine, delves into the eccentric world of blues scholarship on a hunt to find the women who recorded "Motherless Child Blues" and "Last Kind Words Blues" in 1930. His ace in the hole: a middle-of-the-night meeting with Mack McCormick, a renowned blues scholar in his 80s who's sitting on a lifetime of research he calls "the Monster"—because it's so overwhelming, he can't bring it all together.
Sullivan learned a little from McCormick, but made a quantum leap by teaming up with a disgruntled, ex-McCormick assistant who'd copied interviews with Thomas herself—that McCormick had forgotten about or preferred to keep secret. Turns out that a Paramount man had teamed up Thomas and Wiley, they never saw a cent beyond their initial payment, and Wiley allegedly murdered her husband a year later. Sullivan learned a whole lot more by tracking down members of Thomas' family in Texas, who described her as a fiercely independent, pistol-packing lesbian who kept all her cash in the outhouse. So, were Thomas and Wiley once a couple? Did Wiley kill her husband for Thomas? Wiley did keep the line "Gamblin' for Sadie, she is my lady" in one song, which Sullivan calls "a slender clue." For now though, "the only thing sure is we don’t have it all." Click for his full piece, which includes great audio samples. (Read more blues stories.)