Don Kent, the blues scholar and founder of more than one obscure yet influential record label, died last week of cancer at the age of 71. For anyone who knew the man or cared at all about prewar American music, the loss is palpable. Last year, when I was working on “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” — a story about recovering the identities and lives of two lost singers from that early period — Kent proved the most illuminating and generous of sources. He was, to borrow a Barry Hannah line, “a hell of a sweet genius guy.”
In January 2014, I made a road trip to visit Kent in western North Carolina. With me in the van were the Times visual journalist Leslye Davis, my co-researcher Caitlin Love and a research assistant, Joel Finsel. It was a trip to the mountain in more than one respect. Kent was a pillar of the Blues Mafia, the loose-knit band of scholar-collectors who spent the second half of the 20th century finding and curating the forgotten black music of the ’20s and ’30s, but he was also its least-known living member, all but unicornlike in his elusiveness (I couldn’t even find a picture, didn’t know what to expect visually). He had no musicology degree, though he was often consulted by people who did. He had never written a book. A handful of articles, decades ago. Mainly, though, Kent was known for his liner notes, which transcended or at least transformed that genre, becoming in many cases authoritative statements on the artists whose lives and repertoires he examined.
About Geeshie Wiley and L.V. Thomas he’d written several good paragraphs, the best of which had appeared — ironically, now that we knew the two women came from Texas — in the notes for Yazoo’s “Mississippi Masters” compilation. “Although Geeshie Wiley may well have been the rural South’s greatest female blues singer and musician,” Kent begins, “almost nothing is known of her.” He continues in what could be considered his signature vein, both ecstatically overwhelmed and meticulous.
If Geeshie Wiley did not exist, she could not be invented: Her scope and creativity dwarfs most blues artists. She seems to represent the moment when black secular music was coalescing into blues . . . Her guitar technique is unusual: Her use of an A-minor chord in “Last Kind Words” is rare for a rural blues artist, and her adoption of a riff in A normally associated with Texas artists shows a shrewd appreciation for exciting sounds.
That last sentence was the real motivation for our trip. It was useful to ask Kent about any matter involving the country blues, but on the question of Geeshie and L.V. he was distinct: He had, with that sentence, placed himself in a minuscule group of people who were able through listening alone to pick up on the Texas origins in their music. We wanted first to tell him that he had been right, and second to find out what else he knew.
We located him in Rutherfordton, about an hour from Asheville, in a small rental house. He hadn’t been at that address long. He and his wife, Sylvia, had until recently been living happily in a restored farmhouse nearby, in an adjacent county, but that place caught fire (it started in the attic). The two of them, he and Sylvia, insisted on running back inside to retrieve things, even though the local volunteer fire department people were yelling at them to stop, over the noise of the hoses and flames. Both of them had serious burns on their hands and chests. What was it they were so desperate to save?
“Cats and old records,” Sylvia said later on the phone.
On the drive up, we had passed around a remarkable picture on Leslye’s cell, from a North Carolina local-news website’s article about the fire. It was an image of Kent and Sylvia embracing in the burn unit of a regional hospital, holding each other’s faces with gauze-mittened hands, as if they’d been posed that way.
We got there well after dark. Kent came to the door, a small, slender man with a fine-boned face and wispy white beard. A few feet behind him stood Sylvia, an attractive middle-aged Hispanic woman, quick-humored. “I tell people he went to New York, and all he brought back was records and a Puerto Rican,” she said.
Their hands didn’t have those mittens on them anymore, but something sleeker and flesh-colored that they called “burn gloves.” I noticed them only when I went to shake Don’s hand. So, the Kents were healing, and living in this little house while their other one was rebuilt. They very graciously put out food and wine for us on the table: dignity in the face of disaster.
“Did you really go in after the records?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve always had a ‘grab it and run’ shelf.”
“So, you . . . ”
“I grabbed it and ran.”
Then they went back for the rest of the records. And the cats (all five). In the end, nothing was lost, of 78s or pets.
When Kent had finished reading through some of the material we’d gathered — including a transcript of the blues historian Mack McCormick’s 53-year-old interview with L.V., which established beyond a doubt her and Geeshie’s Texas origins — and after he’d leaned back in his chair and was sitting there looking fuse-blown, I asked him how surprised he was, if at all, to learn that they were from Texas. Or did he feel affirmed, given what he had written about that guitar lick, that it was “associated” with Texas artists?
He sighed. “Well . . . I had always figured Geeshie Wiley was from Louisiana.”
Louisiana: where she was in fact from, according the 1930 census, born there in 1908. Only, no one had told Kent that yet. He hadn’t seen the document. When we showed it to him, his eyes got wide. He seemed much more taken aback by that news than he had been by the Texas revelations.
“When did you first start thinking she might be from Louisiana?” I asked.
“About 20 years ago,” he said.
For decades before that, he had waited like everyone else for Geeshie and “Elvie” to show up somewhere in Mississippi. When they didn’t, he sensed something was off. (Others did, too: The ethnomusicologist Dick Spottswood told Greil Marcus in 1999, “I don’t know how you make the case, that they’re from Mississippi. It’s, ‘They’re so good, they have to be from Mississippi.’ ”)
Kent had meditated on the problem and come up with Louisiana. I asked how.
“It was a case of, ‘It’s too weird even for Mississippi,’ ” he said. “That meant it had to be Louisiana.”
Except, it was really more a Texas story. But, of course, he had figured out that part, too.
Kent no longer had his 78 of “Last Kind Words Blues,” Geeshie and L.V.’s legendary 1930 recording — not even in storage, where the rest of the fire-salvaged records were. He’d sold it to another collector for an undisclosed sum, but one that I gathered had played a role in his and Sylvia’s ability to restore the old farmhouse, the one that burned.
Instead, he got out an acoustic guitar and played (he used to play quite well) the section of “Last Kind Words” that first made him hear Texas in Geeshie and L.V.’s music, and specifically the influence of Blind Lemon Jefferson, a little jumping, swooping part made of two counterpoint notes. Kent could demonstrate it only in a very crude way, because of the burn gloves, but he showed us how Blind Lemon did it, and how Geeshie and L.V. did it. We listened as Leslye filmed.
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Thanks so much for your help in getting the word out about Tuesday’s presentation with Nate Chinen and Steve Smith. We had 115 attendees, which is the most ever! We ended up moving the event to the sanctuary. They did a great job.