On the trail of the phantom women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace.
This is a fascinating piece about two female blues musicians, attempting to trace their personal history, and in that respect it’s very timely. I’m not as interested in EMA’s The Future’s Void as cyberpunk artefact (although I did just read Gibson’s Neuromancer for the first time over the past couple of days, while B. Michael’s piece here on that topic is very good and something I’ll return to) as much as a continuation of her earlier genre- and gender-bending work, with the blues. Actually the two aren’t very separate, as I tried to suggest in my previous post - it’s just a matter of whether you’re looking backwards or forwards. For example, the article above is very particularly concerned about finding personal details of the two women, albeit with nods to a larger historical narrative - “the Blues Mafia doesn’t always come off heroically in recent — and vital — revisionist histories of the field, more of them being written by women (including two forthcoming books by Daphne Brooks [Princeton professor and author of the excellent 33 1/3rd book on Jeff Buckley’s Grace] and Amanda Petrusich)” - or more sceptically, the Casaubon-like Mack McCormick:
"He began to intuit a theory of “clusters,” that this was how culture worked, emanating outward from vortices where craft-making and art-making suddenly rise, under a confluence of various pressures, to higher levels. Elaborating that theory would be his great work, or part of it."
As the author points out, it was his particular focus on Robert Johnson that in part undid him (in a video contribution, McCormick also talks more frankly about his experiences with bipolar illness), and McCormick himself further raises the question of how reliable any of the information on that particularly mythic figure is, but here we have a pursuit of two apparently even more obscure figures. And in the sausage-making of historical investigation, there are tentative personal contacts, with potential living relatives, as well as inquiry into historical documents. Is this so far from the world of EMA’s ‘3Jane’, about privacy, identity, celebrity in the age of mass information, which opens with the simple question “Can you believe all they say”? A single, solitary photograph turns up - a phone copy of a Polaroid - of an elderly woman. “She was already dying when it was taken”, we are told. “[T]here was no doubt that her eyes were full of profound melancholy”. I’ve seen my face/and I don’t recognise/the person that I feel inside.
That’s not to say there isn’t a genuine warmth to the tale of the family reunion at the end, the shared memories constructing an oral history of the blueswoman, after the music, in her adopted community. It’s just that it’s (with one particular exception) not really connected with the life before. Which is a point the piece wants to make, the disconnect, and references partly the why - giving up the blues and its lifestyle for church and gospel music - without really giving it much consideration. Save for a tantalising hint at the end, at the edge of human frailty of memory, it can’t penetrate back beyond what they know of what happened after; or beyond the limited vision of census and police records, recording physical existence within the legal-political sphere of America, rather than the cultural one. Of course in a general sense there presumably is - as referenced above - a history of the latter written, and being written, but in this specific case it seems to be too late for the original, personal story to emerge, as distinct from what personal details can emerge from records and knowledge after-the-fact.
What I found most interesting about the piece, therefore, were the different levels of information it presented. It is a multimedia piece, with snippets of songs linked into the text of the lyrics, and video pieces spaced throughout the article. As a starting point, there are the (musical) records: they exist, although physically rare. One of the videos is a discussion about the concept of having an isolated recording, a fragment of a performance without much or any other details concerning the artist - apparently in sharp contrast to today’s media (I’m not so sure - it only takes so many digital links to go dead, to much the same effect). The physical record is there, spinning (at 78 rpm) on a turntable, emitting its characteristic hiss. Yet, in Amanda Petrusich’s words, “all that static, all that noise, all that stuff that sort of separates us from the song itself, she just cuts through that”. Don Kent says ”whatever performances we have are certainly more important than any information we may or may not have about the artist”. The record is a thing, inviolable, superior to other forms of information - and visually fetishised accordingly (as I do myself, albeit usually in different contexts).
The act of recording, however, is also itself a distortion, something Greg Milner in Perfecting Sound Forever is very good on in relation to the blues and the collectors of American folk and the accompanying cultural politics - something which EMA is consciously a further stage in, with her Some Dark Holler project (not, it seems, fully realised to the point of release, but enough to create the amazing Robert Johnson cover and also the track ‘Moonshiner’, which melds fingerpicking blues with the growing hum of guitar drone and pushes it on into shoegaze and beyond).
One personal detail with relevance for L.V. Thomas’s prior life that does emerge is that she was seen as odd for wearing pants, which suggested she was lesbian; and going back to the record, a gospel historian and producer “knew ‘Motherless Child Blues’ well and said he was confident that any black person listening to it in the late 1920s would have recognised her delivery as ‘butch’”. The record has a context, which can be interpreted with a broader knowledge of the period, to illuminate (or at least speculate on) sparse details from a personal life. But is it context we need more, or biography?
According to Petrusich, Geeshie Wiley “came out of the ether and went back into the ether” - a line which could equally have come from a review of The Future’s Void. That album, however, is in part about the oppression of too much knowledge (‘Neuromancer’ - “they know more of it than you do, about all the things that you do”) whereas this whole story is about not knowing enough. Yet there is already the tension within the article with the record, the recording, as knowledge and experience enough in itself, and never quite justifying - except as a quixotic research project and/or a benefit to family history - the pursuit of the person behind the music, back through all those dark and forgotten years. What does it say about the blues, in particular - that raw outpouring of emotion, or rather its transmutation into music - to try and tie it down to personal events? To tell the story of women in the blues, do we need to have their particular stories - or does history allow a right to privacy, to be remembered only in song?
That article linked at the top is a 90-minute rabbithole that is VERY much worth falling down, and while all of HCFN’s elaboration relating to EMA and her connection to prewar blues and science fiction and etc is fascinating, the real takeaway from all this to me is just how easy it is to lose history if no one bothers to write it down or do anything with it. Which just, once again, makes my mind return to the boxes of zines and records that sit around my room having nothing done with them. Will some obscure 7 inch in my collection one day be one of less than a dozen extant copies? (Are any of them that way right now?) I feel like I better start writing everything down now just in case in 50 years I’m another Mack McCormick dealing with widespread bitterness because I never did anything with the info I had/have. Of course, bipolar disorder is a mitigating factor in my life too…
Sigh. Apologies for my grandiosity. Maybe no one cares about the music I think is so important anyway, right? But I guess if nothing else, I do. I think my continuing to bring this stuff up on this blog is an example of me finding ways to berate myself for not doing more. I need to stop talking and do some work.