Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

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9780060524234: Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

Robert Johnson's story presents a fascinating paradox: Why did this genius of the Delta blues excite so little interest when his records were first released in the 1930s? And how did this brilliant but obscure musician come to be hailed long after his death as the most important artist in early blues and a founding father of rock 'n' roll?

Elijah Wald provides the first thorough examination of Johnson's work and makes it the centerpiece for a fresh look at the entire history of the blues. He traces the music's rural folk roots but focuses on its evolution as a hot, hip African-American pop style, placing the great blues stars in their proper place as innovative popular artists during one of the most exciting periods in American music. He then goes on to explore how the image of the blues was reshaped by a world of generally white fans, with very different standards and dreams.

The result is a view of the blues from the inside, based not only on recordings but also on the recollections of the musicians themselves, the African-American press, and original research. Wald presents previously unpublished studies of what people on Delta plantations were actually listening to during the blues era, showing the larger world in which Johnson's music was conceived. What emerges is a new respect and appreciation for the creators of what many consider to be America's deepest and most influential music.

Wald also discusses how later fans formed a new view of the blues as haunting Delta folklore. While trying to separate fantasy from reality, he accepts that neither the simple history nor the romantic legend is the whole story. Each has its own fascinating history, and it is these twin histories that inform this book.

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About the Author:

Elijah Waldis a writer and musician whose books include Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. A respected expert on the folk revival, he collaborated with Dave Van Ronk on The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis. His awards include a 2002 Grammy, and he has taught blues history at UCLA and lectured widely on American, Mexican, and world music. He currently lives in Medford, Massachusetts.

From The Washington Post:

The congressional proclamation of 2003 as the "Year of the Blues" enabled all manner of film, concert and educational initiatives meant to raise public awareness and appreciation of a genre that Congress asserts "is the most influential form of American roots music." While few would argue otherwise, some have responded to all this Capitol Hill pomp by raising questions about the relevance of the blues in the 21st century, when the music's audience has skewed overwhelmingly white, and its most rabid supporters appear to be the fraternity of beer-ad music supervisors.

Elijah Wald is not so interested in what the blues means in its year of distinction, but he is very interested in how it came to mean something other than what it once did. In Escaping the Delta, he sets out to explore "the paradox of [Robert] Johnson's reputation: that his music excited so little interest among the black blues fans of his time, and yet is now widely hailed as the greatest and most important blues ever recorded." Wald sees this paradox as symbolizing a larger gulf between the blues as heard by the black audience in its own time -- who knew it as hip, popular music -- and a later, mostly white audience that romanticized the blues as "the heart-cry of a suffering people." Not a book about Johnson per se, Escaping the Delta is a thoughtful, impassioned historical essay about that gulf.

Wald spends the first several chapters laying out the prewar musical terrain in which the blues came to the fore, through a synthesis of murkily understood received culture and the skills of those who refined the blues into a consciously commercial -- not naively folk -- art. After a quick sketch of Johnson's life and a critical analysis of his recordings, Wald carries the story through to the folk-revival "discovery" of the blues in the 1950s and the British Invasion's canonizing stamp of the 1960s, then adds a coda in which he seeks to lay permanently to rest the resilient myth that Johnson met the devil at a crossroads and sold his soul for other-worldly musicianship.

If the first half of the story sounds a lot more interesting than the second, Wald may feel the same way. Escaping the Delta is most engaged in the early going, as he dismantles genre stereotypes via endearing tidbits such as that blues singer Memphis Minnie's set list included George Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" and that Johnson rated the Sons of the Pioneers' "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" among his favorite songs. The book is much more hurried and polemically loose on the downhill side, as Wald takes broad swipes at an uptight blues "cognoscenti" and cites more dully familiar anecdotes such as the time the Rolling Stones sat at the feet of Howlin' Wolf. A professional musician himself, Wald can regale a listener with pinpoint comparisons of Johnson and Kokomo Arnold recordings that were each waxed more than 60 years ago. Such record-geek soliloquies can clear out a cocktail party, but here they serve a reader well. For Wald is rarely less than convincing when he makes his case for what Johnson and the prewar blues audience were actually hearing in their own day.

Often it wasn't the blues. Repeatedly Wald drives home the point that neither the musicians nor the audience frequenting a Clarksdale, Miss., juke joint in 1937 likely limited their taste to visceral fare like Johnson's "Cross Road Blues." They'd probably never heard it. In Wald's estimation, black listeners tended to prefer the smooth, urbane vocals of the far better-selling (in Johnson's day) blues pianist Leroy Carr, and if the jukebox selections noted by a 1944 field recording team are any indication, some may have liked the "sweet band" leader Sammy Kaye better than either.

In this fashion Wald does not seek to temper admiration for Johnson and his brilliant Delta generation. Rather he wants to rescue them from a historical narrative he sees as having been edited by record producers (the blues were good business), folklorists (the blues were authentic) and Rolling Stones fans (the blues were outlaw), each of which had a separate agenda for the music.

But Wald's focus on folkies and Stones freaks is problematic. For all his interest in the complexity of black-white, blues-pop musical exchanges in the pre-World War II South, he largely ignores that dynamic as carried through to the volatile postwar context. The South is full of tales of white kids who during the segregation era snuck away to off-limits black nightclubs, and of black kids who grew up with their ears tuned to the Grand Ole Opry. Wald is rightly sympathetic to the frustrations of the latter (quoting Bobby "Blue" Bland, "it was the wrong time and the wrong place for a black singer to make it singing white country blues") but oddly uninterested in the experiences of the former. He mentions Elvis Presley mostly in passing and scarcely touches on the impact of postwar black radio. Yet that generation's story had every bit as much to do with evolving perceptions (and misperceptions) of the blues as did any folk revivalism or Stones evangelism.

Nevertheless, the best studies inspire further study, and the best music books inspire further listening. Escaping the Delta could well do both. Blank spots aside, one comes away respecting Wald's view that far too much time has been spent wondering if Robert Johnson really sold his soul to the devil, and far too little time listening at the musical crossroads where he actually lived.

Reviewed by Daniel Cooper


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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