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

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Overview

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

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Overview

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 Wald presents previously unpublished studies of what people on Delta plantations were actually listening to during the blues era, showing the larger world in which Johnson's music was conceived.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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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
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. — Daniel Cooper
Publishers Weekly
In this combination history of blues music and biography of Robert Johnson, Wald, a blues musician himself (and author of Narcorrido), explores Johnson's rise from a little known guitarist who died in 1938 to one of the most influential artists in rock and roll. From the blues' meager beginning in the early 1900s to its '30s heyday and its 1960s revival, Wald gives a revisionist history of the music, which he feels, in many instances, has been mislabeled and misjudged. Though his writing sometimes reads like a textbook, and he occasionally gets bogged down in arcane musical references, Wald's academic precision aids him in his quest to re-analyze America's perception of the blues as well as in trying to decipher the music's murky true origins and history. Using a lengthy comparison of how white Americans and black Americans define the blues, Wald demonstrates how Johnson fit into the gray area between the two. Wald combines a short bio of Johnson with detailed analysis of his songs and the mysterious tales that are associated with him, giving a thorough account of Johnson's life, music and legend. The chapter on how white guitarists like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards interpreted who Johnson was and what he played really shows why he is not one of the many forgotten early 20th-century bluesmen. Wald's theories will no doubt cause passionate discussions among true blues aficionados, but the technical and obscure nature of much of his writing will make the book more of a useful reference resource. (Dec.) Forecast: Amistad is backing this title with a seven-city tour and 50-city radio campaign, with hopes of it becoming a crossover hit. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
"There has probably been more romantic foolishness written about blues in general, and Robert Johnson in particular, than just about any other genre or performer in the twentieth century." So writes blues scholar Wald in his unromanticized recount of this genre's roots in popular music and of Johnson as a minor player in the music's early development. With weighty research and an acute personal knowledge, Wald takes a candid look at the music as a whole and at his own aesthetics as a white musician, fan, and journalist, removing many of the stereotypes and much of the folklore built up over the last century. The blues have always been commercial music made by musicians trying to earn a living, and Johnson is Wald's benchmark to show how the tastes and fan base have changed over the years. It will probably sting for Claptonites to realize that the blues never were strictly black or as lyrically stern and hard-drinking as the white rock scene has imagined. This book has a broader historic scope than Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCullough's recent Robert Johnson Lost and Found, which also debunks blues folklore but stays focused on Johnson and his supposed deal with the devil. An excellent resource for research; recommended for all libraries.-Eric Hahn, West Des Moines, IA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A reconsideration of the Mississippi blues singer's legend in the context of the popular music of his time. Wald, author of the engaging 2001 musical travelogue Narcocorridos, attempts to debunk the sizable myths surrounding Robert Johnson, today the most lionized of '30s Delta blues singers. Most of this heavily researched work is devoted not to Johnson, but to the evolution of blues as the popular entertainment of African-Americans. Wald notes that Johnson was a minor commercial figure whose archaic-sounding solo recordings stood in marked contrast to the slick blues hits of his day. He also points out that Johnson's handful of recordings synthesized, and often purloined, the work of such bestselling contemporaries as Lonnie Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw, and Kokomo Arnold, as well as such important but comparatively obscure Mississippi musicians as Son House and Skip James. Wald's central point is that the errant contemporary perception of Johnson as a haunted, "primitive" artist and the key figure of Delta blues grew out of the highly romantic conceptions of such (white) promoters and archivists as John Hammond and Alan Lomax, whose notions were accepted as gospel by the (white) audiences and musicians who made Johnson a posthumous superstar. While one can't really argue with these conclusions, the reading is unusually heavy sailing. Those seeking fresh insight into Johnson's music will be disappointed, since chapters about the purported subject offer no new information and little original analysis. The main thesis-which is not exactly stop-the-presses news to blues aficionados, but which could pique come-lately fans-is laboriously developed; it takes Wald, usually a briskly effectivewriter, more than a hundred lugubrious pages to finally arrive at Johnson's doorstep. In the end, this is essentially an academic enterprise. Should anyone really be surprised that, at a distance of 65 years, today's white blues listeners receive Robert Johnson's music in a very different manner than his original black audience did? Some solid observations ultimately get mired in the Mississippi mud. Author tour. Agent: Richard McDonough
Booklist
“If you read only one book about blues...read this one.”
Starred Booklist
“If you read only one book about blues...read this one.”
Starred Booklist on Escaping the Delta
“If you read only one book about blues...read this one.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060524272
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/14/2004
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 385,762
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Elijah Wald es escritor y músico con veinte años de experiencia reportando sobre los orígenes musicales y sobre la música misma en diferentes regiones del mundo. Fue escritor y asesor para el proyecto de múltiples medios del Instituto Smithsonian llamado The Mississippi: River and Song (El Río Mississippi: el río y su música), y también recibió un premio por la biografía Josh White: Society Blues (Josh White, Blues de la Sociedad). Una sobrevista de su obra se puede conseguir en elijawald.com.

Elijah Wald is a writer and musician with twenty years experience covering roots and world music. He was writer and consultant on the Smithsonian multimedia project The Mississippi: River of Song, and is the author of the award-winning biography Josh White: Society Blues.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
1 What is Blues? 3
2 Race Records: Blues Queens, Crooners, Street Singers, and Hokum 14
3 What the Records Missed 43
4 Hollers, Moans, and 'Deep Blues' 70
5 The Mississippi Delta: Life and Listening 83
6 A Life Remembered 105
7 The Music 126
8 First Sessions, Part One: Going for Some Hits 131
9 First Sessions, Part Two: Reaching Back 149
10 Second Sessions: The Professional 166
11 The Legacy 186
12 Jump Shouters, Smooth Trios, and Down-Home Soul 193
13 The Blues Cult: Primitive Folk Art and The Roots of Rock 220
14 Farther On Up the Road: Wherefore and Whither the Blues 250
Afterthought: So What About the Devil? 265
Appendix 277
Notes 281
Bibliography 317
Index 323
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First Chapter

Escaping the Delta
Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

Chapter One

What Is Blues?

"The sorrow songs of the slaves we call Jubilee Melodies. The happy-go-lucky songs of the Southern Negro we call blues."
-- W.C. Handy, in 1919

"I never did name one of my records the blues after all. Everybody else called my sounds what I made 'the blues.' But I always just felt good behind 'em; I didn't feel like I was playin' no blues."
-- Jimmy Reed, in 1975

There has probably been more romantic foolishness written about blues in general, and Robert Johnson in particular, than about any other genre or performer of the twentieth century. As white urbanites discovered the "Race records" of the 1920s and 1930s, they reshaped the music to fit their own tastes and desires, creating a rich mythology that often bears little resemblance to the reality of the musicians they admired. Popular entertainers were reborn as primitive voices from the dark and demonic Delta, and a music notable for its professionalism and humor was recast as the heart-cry of a suffering people. The poverty and oppression of the world that created blues is undeniable, but it was the music's up-to-date power and promise, not its folkloric melancholy, that attracted black record buyers.

When did blues emerge? We have all heard variations on a mythic answer:

The blues been here since time began
Since the first lyin' woman met the first cheatin' man.

Which is indisputably true, if we are talking about heartache rather than music. People have always had the blues, and as far as we know they have always sung about it. This is the source of Spanish flamenco, of Cape Verdean morna, and of country and western, all styles notable for lamenting lost and martyred love. However, if we are talking not about a universal emotion, but about the music filed in record stores as "blues," matters become both more prosaic and more complicated.

Before going into the history of blues music, we first have to confront the fact that the term has been used for a lot of different styles over the years. Like all genre names, "blues" has always been, first and foremost, a marketing term. When the market is hot, the word gets tacked onto plenty of songs that fit no musical definition of the form. When it gets cold, even the most straightforward twelve-bar blues may get classified as folk, jazz, rock, or funk. I am not going to enter the meaningless debate over what is or is not blues -- I have no problem with people using whatever definition they like, as long as they grant that it is not the only one. It is worth taking a moment, though, to look at a few common definitions and provide an idea of what the word means to me.

The simplest and clearest definition of blues is the one used by musicians, as when they say, "Let's play a blues." This is a certain sequence of chords, commonly known as the twelve-bar blues, and there have been literally thousands of songs composed in this pattern. All such songs are technically "blues," though they have been played by ragtime orchestras, jazz bands, pop and rock groups, and have formed the bedrock for artists as different as Ma Rainey, Count Basie, Elvis Presley, James Brown, and Mose Allison.

While this definition has the virtue of simplicity, a lot of music that is generally considered to be blues does not fit the twelve-bar framework. Much of Bessie Smith's and B. B. King's work, for example, is set to more varied and complex chord changes. As a result, folklorists and musicologists often say that the standard blues form can have twelve, eight or sixteen bars, or various other variations, and that the most important thing is a certain tonal feel created by the use of "blue notes" (in technical terms, the flatted third and seventh notes of the major scale). Such notes are common in many earlier African and African-American styles, as well as in quite a few other musics around the world, and they are usually described by Europeans and Euro-Americans as having a mournful, lonesome, minor-key sound.

The perception of this "blues feel" is to a great extent subjective, and different people hear it in different places. There is infinite argument, for example, over which jazz masters have and have not been able to get a blues feel in their music. In the wider world, some writers will argue that the Egyptian star Oum Khulthoum was a sort of blues singer, or the griots of Mali, or the Greek rebetika artists, while others fervently dispute the point. Even within the musics normally considered blues there is plenty of room for disagreement. I recently had a conversation with an expert who argued that most of the famous blues queens of the 1920s were not really singing blues, while white "hillbilly" artists like Dock Boggs often were.

Where all the experts come together is in their irritation at the most common and influential definition of blues. This is the definition used by the true modern arbiters of genre, the people who market music and file it in record stores. Through their good offices, "blues" has come to be generally understood as the range of music found in the blues section when we go shopping for CDs. This commercial definition uses the word as a grab-bag term for all sorts of older African-American musics that cannot be filed elsewhere: The rule seems to be that if a black person played it before 1950, and it is not classifiable as jazz, classical or gospel, then it must be blues. In most record stores, fiddle hoedowns end up in the blues section if they were recorded by black players, as do work songs, children's songs, and a good deal of ragtime. Even gospel music will usually be found there if the performer was black and accompanied him- or herself on guitar ...

Escaping the Delta
Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
. Copyright © by Elijah Wald. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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