Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Here to Tell the Story

John Jeremiah Sullivan reports an early story of the blues

While the book world is consumed with questions about its future, it seems important to take a step back now and again and remind ourselves that what really matters, more than anything, is that there are people in this world with stories to tell, and that we are here to pay attention. There are arguably few writers in the last decade who have done more to adhere to this code than Sewanee grad John Jeremiah Sullivan, whom some have credited with reviving the entire musty essay genre with his contributions to GQ and The New York Times Magazine, and through his book, Pulphead.

Now comes Sullivan with a twisting, fascinating piece of investigative journalism in the April 19 issue of The New York Times Magazine. “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie: On the trail of the phantom women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace.” In it, Sullivan searches for clues to two women who, during the Great Depression, traveled to Wisconsin to record music for Paramount Records, and then receded from public record. For decades, blues aficionados have rhapsodized about the mysterious recordings and wondered what happened to the women who made them.

Sullivan wondered too. The story has everything you could want from an article about blues music: wailing and misery, guitars and banjos, juke joints and religious conversions, mystery and myth. And it has some elements one might not necessarily expect, which only add to the ever-growing legend of the greatest blues era. Paired with Sullivan’s words in this “interactive media package” are interviews with blues scholars and the music of Geeshie and Elvie themselves, comprising together a satisfying experience that immerses the reader in the myths and sounds of the South during the years when blues music was just being named and introduced to the world. It’s worth the time required to read it carefully, to pay attention.