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Mythology and reality
Elijah Wald searches for Robert Johnson
Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
By Elijah Wald. Amistad, 368 pages, $24.95.

All forms of folk culture have their mythology. In the blues, that includes rendezvous with devils at midnight crossroads, nearly superhuman badmen like the killer Stag O’Lee, and the powers invoked by possession of a mojo hand or a black-cat bone. But there’s been another level of myth imposed on this music that has no relationship to the tales that inspired its pioneers to write colorful, memorable songs: the projections of white fans, who have imposed their own false standards of authenticity on the genre and who have defied history and reality by reclassifying its brightest professional innovators as backwoods primitives.

This has been a topic of increasing debate in blues circles, albeit for fewer years than the tiresome argument about whether white musicians can play genuine blues — another point that’s of greater concern to white purist fans than to African-American artists — that has raged since the ’60s. Cambridge-based author and musician Elijah Wald uses the blues virtuoso Robert Johnson as a springboard to deflate white purists’ notions of the music in his new Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. His arguments are thoughtful and well researched, and blues fans who come to his book with an open mind or readers who are simply interested in learning more about Johnson, a figure who has had a tremendous posthumous impact on blues and rock and roll, will be amply rewarded. Much of Wald’s evidence has been previously ignored or unmanageable, and his research helps makes sense of what old jukebox playlists and sales figures can tell us. He also delivers a careful analysis of Johnson’s recordings that defines the elements of state-of-the-art blues during Johnson’s time, the 1930s.

The first of the book’s three parts examines the early African-American popular-music scene, tracing its development from work hollers in the cotton fields to the ballads of vaudeville stages. Wald shows through record-sales figures, newspaper stories, and other accounts that the blues during the early decades of the recording industry was nothing less than a trendy modern style. Of his list of 40 blues artists who recorded between 69 and 100-plus records from 1920 and 1942, only six were the guitar-wielding rural street-corner or juke-joint players that most people today associate with the music’s first golden age.

Johnson himself is the subject of the book’s second section, which balances biography and commentary on his recordings. Within Johnson’s linear guitar lines, shimmering slide playing, and wailing, crooning vocal performances, Wald finds that the technique for which the bluesman is so revered by the likes of Eric Clapton was more the product of listening to recordings by urban blues artists like Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, Lonnie Johnson, and Big Bill Broonzy than to the rural players from his own region. Despite Johnson’s proficiency and the power of his vivid songs, his records sold poorly during his lifetime. Although most Delta residents knew of Carr and Blackwell from their hits, few knew of Johnson save for the circle of musicians he ran with and the players he directly influenced, like Robert Lockwood and Honeyboy Edwards.

Escaping the Delta’s final third offers Wald’s theory on how an obscure musician became an icon after his sides were reissued in the 1960s. Wald believes that ultimately "the white, cult, museum mentality has triumphed, and the whole idea of blues as black popular music rather than a historic folk heritage has disappeared." In Johnson’s case, he attributes canonization to a number of dovetailing factors including race, taste, timing, and romance. "Like the effect of seeing Elvis Presley jumping out of the living-room television in 1956, the discovery of Robert Johnson fulfilled needs that people did not even know they had," he writes. "To a lot of white kids . . . Johnson defined everything that had drawn them to blues, to rock, to folk, or just to want to break out of the boring, ordinary world of suburban England or Eisenhower America. His music was older, deeper, and more mysterious than anything they had heard before. The lyrics were powerful and exciting, the voice moaned, soared, and whispered, and the guitar work showed an astonishing subtlety combined with a virtuosic command of rhythm and tone. Most of all, there was the feel, a primal, visceral heart-cry that fit like a missing puzzle piece into all the James Dean/Marlon Brando dreams of pained, sensitive, brilliant, masculine rebellion."

Thus Robert Johnson became an icon, and the most dramatic, mythic elements of what white listeners knew about the time, region, and circumstances of African-Americans in the Delta during the 1930s set the view that many have chosen to embrace as truth — and that Wald has come to challenge.

Issue Date: February 6 - 12, 2004
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