Escaping the Delta

Escaping the Delta

Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

Book - 2004
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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 Wald presents previously unpublished studies of what people on Delta plantations were actually listening to during the blues era, showing the larger world in which Johnson's music was conceived.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.

Publisher: New York : Amistad, c2004.
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780060524234
0060524235
Branch Call Number: 782.4216 JOHNSON
Characteristics: xxvi, 342 pages ; 24 cm.

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DrFolklore
Feb 07, 2015

Escaping The Delta is a book for readers with a strong interest in blues. Elijah Wald, the author, a scholar and blues guitarist, has written a thoroughly-researched study of early blues music. He covers the same territory as Karl Hagstrom Miller's Segregating Sound (see my review by clicking on "Dr. Folklore" above), but centres on Robert Johnson and other Mississippi Delta blues singers and musicians. People with only a passing background in blues music and history might want to read a blues primer before tackling this book.

Robert Johnson, an outstanding and influential guitar player, though relatively obscure musician in his short lifetime, has become a larger-than-life character to contemporary blues musicians and fans. As Wald says, "Amidst all the mythologizing, it is not easy to stand back and treat Johnson as a normal human being, a talented artist who came along at a particular period in American music, and to try to understand his world and his contribution rather than getting lost in the clouds of romanticism" (xvi). Wald takes up the challenge, not an easy task when Johnson was an itinerant musician, often travelling; when most of the dates in Johnson's life are unclear, his marital status is questionable, and the names he used were inconsistent.

However, Wald does an admirable job of showing us that Johnson was an ambitious and talented entertainer, playing other music besides blues. Despite tales of Johnson's selling his soul to the devil for musical ability, Wald shows that the young man carefully studied both local and popular musicians, emulating their styles and adding his own creative touches. Wald examines his recordings individually to show the influences on Johnson. Despite his great admiration for Robert Johnson, Wald provides considerable evidence to present Johnson as a developing musician, not yet settled into his own style.

In Escaping The Delta, Wald gives a thorough look into the culture that produced and consumed "the blues", not so much the "voice of the Delta" as a form of popular music. Unapologetically, he presents the differing aesthetics of the mainly "black" contemporary blues fans of Johnson's lifetime and the mainly "white" contemporary blues consumers.

A major flaw in Escaping The Delta is that Wald refuses to provide his definition of blues. While understandable, this lack presents a problem as he tells us that a blues singer also recorded "jazz" or "hokum", leaving the reader wondering where Wald draws the line. As well, he's uninformed about music other than blues, referring to every "old time" dance tune as "a hoedown" (once, he says "breakdown") despite being picky about distinguishing blues, jazz, and such. Wald's writing is uneven, at times quite interesting and at times dry. Anecdotes are scarce as he tries to discern truth and not recycle legends (stories told as true). Still, I'd recommend this book to anyone with a strong interest in blues music. If you're a romantic, who doesn't want your legends and stereotypes challenged, avoid this book.

(YouTube gives us instant access to nearly all the music discussed in the book. For more on Robert Johnson, see my review of the DVD, "Searching for Robert Johnson", by clicking on "Dr. Folklore" above.)

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