Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
Escaping the Delta isn’t a conventional biography of Robert Johnson, the most influential blues player ever, but a critical study of the blues itself as a social and musical phenomenon. It takes Johnson as a central, crucial figure and looks at the musical traditions out of which he sprang, looks at his recorded legacy in detail, then examines the manner in which his influence spread following his tragically early death. Elijah Wald takes the somewhat controversial view that the early blues players were simply playing what was for them popular music.
“No one involved in the blues world was calling this music art. It was working-class pop music, and its purveyors were looking for immediate sales, with no expectation that their songs would be remembered once the blues vogue had passed.” He also poses difficult questions such as why Robert Johnson was ignored by the core black audience of his time yet is now celebrated as the greatest figure in blues history.
Wald is immensely well-informed on the social, historical, and musical background of his topic. All his claims about the relative popularity of musicians is backed up by statistics of the recordings they made, their record sales (where known), and even the most-played records on jukeboxes. Every page is littered with the names of blues musicians – men and women whose work he obviously knows inside out.
The book is structured in three parts – the first is a contextualisation of blues music in the USA in the years 1900-1930; the second is his account of the life of Robert Johnson and an analysis of his recorded legacy; and the third is his socio-musical account of what happened to the blues after his death.
He argues that commentators have persistently ignored the sophistication of black musicians, and failed to acknowledge that the blues might be only one of a variety of styles in which they played, depending on the occasion.
White urbanites, for obvious reasons, are fascinated by a creation myth in which genius blossomed, wild and untamed, from the delta mud, and are less interested in the unromantic picture of Muddy Waters sitting by the radio listening to Fats Waller, or a sharecropper singing Broadway show tunes as he followed his mule along the levee.
When he comes to Robert Johnson, the romantic, tempestuous life is sketched out in a single chapter; but this is followed by three devoted to a examination of Johnson’s complete oeuvre – a couple of dozen songs recorded at two sessions in 1936. He shows in fine detail where Johnson was following the blues tradition and where he was doing something new.
Following Johnson’s death in 1938, Wald then traces how the blues morphed into rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and soul music in the post war period. The torch was just about kept aflame by figures such as Muddy Waters. But by 1960 this flame was almost on the point of being extinguished when along came white English bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones who re-introduced the blues and its original heroes to the USA – where they had come from in the first place.
It’s a controversial claim, but as usual he backs it up with plenty of evidence – not least from figures such as Muddy Waters himself:
I thinks to myself how these white kids was sitting down and thinking and playing the blues that my black kids was bypassing. That was a hell of a thing, man, to think about.
This is a passionately and intelligently argued study which situates blues music in the social and economic world out of which it grew. But what stands clear most of all is the towering romantic figure of Robert Johnson. Reading this book makes you ache to hear his wonderful music yet again.
© Roy Johnson 2005
Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, New York: HarperCollins, 2005, pp.342, ISBN: 0060524278