Escaping the Delta : Robert Johnson and the invention of the blues /
Elijah Wald.
1st Amistad pbk. ed.
New York : Amistad, 2005.
xxvi, 342 p. ; 23 cm.
0060524278, 9780060524272
More Details
New York : Amistad, 2005.
general note
Originally published in 2004.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 317-321) and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Elijah Wald has been a musician since his childhood and a writer for more than twenty years
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.

Excerpted from Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald
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Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2003-11-03:
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. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 2003-11-01:
A musician since childhood, Wald (Narcocorrido) has a dual purpose: to take a closer look at the blues while presenting the life story of legendary blues singer and guitarist Johnson. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review Quotes
"If you read only one book about this one."
'œIf you read only one book about this one.'
This item was reviewed in:
Globe & Mail, June 2004
New York Times Book Review, October 2004
New York Times Book Review, January 2005
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Main Description
The life of blues legend Robert Johnson becomes the centerpiece for this innovative look at what many consider to be America's deepest and most influential music genre. Pivotal are the questions surrounding why Johnson was ignored by the core black audience of his time yet now celebrated as the greatest figure in blues history. Trying to separate myth from reality, biographer Elijah Wald studies the blues from the inside -- not only examining recordings but also the recollections of the musicians themselves, the African-American press, as well as examining original research. What emerges is a new appreciation for the blues and the movement of its artists from the shadows of the 1930s Mississippi Delta to the mainstream venues frequented by today's loyal blues fans.
Bowker Data Service Summary
This text uses Robert Johnson and his work as the centre for a fresh look at blues in general, taking his music and the myths surrounding it as the key to an exploration of the reality and myths that have surrounded the larger world of African-American music.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introductionp. xiii
The World that Johnson Knew
What is Blues?p. 3
Race Records: Blues Queens, Crooners, Street Singers, and Hokump. 14
What the Records Missedp. 43
Hollers, Moans, and "Deep Blues"p. 70
The Mississippi Delta: Life and Listeningp. 83
Robert Johnson
A Life Rememberedp. 105
The Musicp. 126
First Sessions, Part one: Going for some Hitsp. 131
First Sessions, Part Two: Reaching Backp. 149
Second Sessions: The Professionalp. 166
The Legacyp. 186
The Blues Roll on
Jump Shouters, Smooth Trios, and Down-Home Soulp. 193
The Blues Cult: Primitive Folk Art and the Roots of Rockp. 220
Farther on up the Road: Wherefore and Whither the Bluesp. 250
Afterthought: So What About the Devil?p. 265
Appendixp. 277
Notesp. 281
Bibliographyp. 317
Indexp. 323
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

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