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Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the…

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

by Elijah Wald

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Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
A history of blues anchored on the short life of the iconic Robert Johnson. A very interesting and lucid view on the blues, trying to dispel the myths and focus on what blues really meant to the people who listened to the music across the years, from its origins to the revival of the 1960s and then to modern day.
Well worth the read for anyone who loves this musical genre. ( )
  espadana | Jun 24, 2015 |
Good historical overview of the blues, particularly notable in addressing common misperceptions about early blues artists. ( )
  Sullywriter | May 22, 2015 |
This history of the blues places Robert Johnson in the context of his time and the music of his time and place. Therefore, it corrects the widely held impression that Johnson in particular and the Delta bluesmen in general were recognized as tortured geniuses and were popularly acclaimed. At the same time, Wald respects and loves the Delta blues recordings and his chapters on Johnson's sessions are a sensitive track by track appreciation and evaluation. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
The legend of the wandering bluesman from the Mississippi Delta is one of those enduring images we have from early 20th century America. Even if Robert Johnson didn't sell his soul to the Devil to get a supernatural ability to play blues guitar, that sort of music burst out of the Delta to become R&B, infect jazz, and eventually lead to rock 'n roll. And it all started with these few musical geniuses that grew out of the poor black culture of the previous century, right?

Well, maybe not, if you believe Elijah Wald. In Escaping the Delta, he makes three main points: (i) the blues that was most popular was the more urban, professional, often large-group music heard first on records and then on the radio, (ii) most blues musicians, including those from the Delta were quite versatile musicians that played a wide variety of music, an image not generally recognized today, and (iii) the mystique that's grown up around acoustic Delta blues is mostly that - mystique - and came from the attention mostly white, mostly urban folklorists and preservationists paid to a relatively minor group of artists.

Just so you know, this is a fairly contrarian view of the history of the blues, and one that makes quite a bit of sense to me. Some of today's most highly revered blues musicians were pretty much unknown in their day and had marginal impact on audiences and other musicians. Yet these are the ones that are considered "Father of the Blues" or "King of the Blues". How did this drastic shift in thinking happen? Wald describes a process by which folklorists in previous decades, in trying to preserve the source of the blues, artificially selected unique material or songs that were considered "closer" to the source material instead of the wider selection of what blues artists actually played to audiences. This has distorted what we now view as pure blues and our consideration of the relative importance of various artists and styles.

Escaping the Delta is not a history of the blues. Instead, it's a study on the study of blues history. As such, it's helpful to know something about the music and its history ahead of time. But it's not required. If nothing else, Wald's work is an interesting discussion of how researchers can inadvertently influence the results of their work in unintended ways and how that can ripple into legend and folklore. ( )
3 vote drneutron | Jan 28, 2010 |
The blues was a polished, professional style of popular music and Robert Johnson was a talented but little known blues performer; so says Elijah Wald. Wald makes a good argument for this proposition, which does not detract from the fact that Robert Johnson's twenty nine recorded songs contain a unique and wonderful set of performances.

The blues, as it was understood in the 1920s, when Johnson was growing up, was music made by theatrically decked out women, "blues queens" like Ida Cox and Bessie Smith, who performed with jazz orchestras and sang in vaudeville theaters. Piano and guitar duos would play the blues in dance halls and guitar, fiddle and banjo players would play an older style of dance music at square dances.

Guitarists like Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller were often found playing in country "jukes" or on street corners until they became local hits, after being recorded during "field recording" sessions by the newly emerging record companies. It was during two of these field recording sessions, in 1936 and 1937, that Johnson laid down the tracks that led to his eventual crowning as "King of the Delta Blues." Unfortunately for him, Johnson's records did not sell well in his own time, although they made a big impression on a New York concert promoter and record executive, John Hammond.

In 1938 Hammond was putting together an extravaganza for Carnegie Hall, "From Spirituals to Swing," which was to feature Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mitchell's Christian Singers, Count Basie's Orchestra and, he hoped, Robert Johnson. Unfortunately Jonson died, probably murdered, before Hammond could find him and bring him to New York.

Because Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 27 he was unable to develop, as did his traveling companion Johnny Shines, into a mature country blues performer, or become a sophisticate "folk" musician as did his contemporary, Josh White, or go electric like Muddy Waters or go into jazz like Charlie Christian. We don't know what might have been.

Some of Robert Johnson's recordings were re-released on an LP in 1961 "King of the Delta Blues Singers." This album influenced The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dave Van Ronk and any number of modern musicians, who have created a kind of cult of Robert Johnson. Elijah Wald was, and is still, a member of that cult, but here, he attempts to set the record straight.

I'll Never Forget The Day I Read A Book!
1 vote cbjorke | Sep 10, 2009 |
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To the memory of Dave Van Ronk, so often my mentor in both music and writing, whose ideas formed the foundation of this work.
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For its first fifty years, Blues was primarily black popular music.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060524278, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:35 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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.… (more)

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