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Along with information about my new book on Robert Johnson and the
blues, and the companion CD of songs and artists that Johnson used as
his models, this page also has links to the following related extras:
|Escaping the Delta:
Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
By Elijah Wald
The first printing of the paperback edition includes a CD with take one of Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues," the one recording that is missing from Sony's "Complete Recordings," as well as Leroy Carr's "Mean Mistreater Mama," which was the model for Johnson's "Kind Hearted Woman Blues."
This book is an attempt to explore Robert Johnson, his music, and his place in blues history, but more than that it is a broad exploration of the whole history of blues, asking what it would look like if we thought of it as African-American popular music --which it was from about 1910-1960 -- rather than as a roots, folk style. In the process, I discuss not only the music, but also the world in which it thrived.
I take two questions as my jumping-off place: Why was Johnson’s work all but ignored by the blues audience of his time, and why is he now considered the greatest figure in blues history?
To answer these questions, I provide the most thorough discussion so far of Johnson and his music, giving his life story as recalled by his friends and playing partners and studying his work in detail to look at his sources, his inspirations, and what he was trying to accomplish. As background, I provide a full picture of the evolution of blues as popular music up to his time, and also of the wider music world of which blues was a part, from hillbilly hoedowns to Bing Crosby hits -- all of which were routinely played by artists like Johnson and Muddy Waters, but never recorded by them due to the pressures of the commercial record industry.
Then I bring the story up to date, following the evolution of blues for both the black and the white audiences. Blues was first of all a black popular music style, and Johnson was not a demon-harried oddity from the primeval delta, but a brilliant and savvy pop musician, and he deserves to be respected as such, rather than worshipped as a weird rock deity. And yet, in some ways the myths are just as important as the reality.
My own take on blues has been formed by thirty years of playing the music, many of them as a full-time professional (follow these YouTube links to see me playing songs by Mississippi John Hurt and Furry Lewis), and some twenty years of writing not only about blues, but about roots and pop styles from around the world. I became more deeply fascinated with Johnson's work after going to Mississippi for the first time, to play at the dedication of his grave marker, while working for two years as accompanist to the black string-band master Howard Armstrong, and then while teaching a series of classes on the history of blues, gospel, and other American roots styles.
This book tries to show both the genuine Robert Johnson, an African-American popular musician whose recordings are both an artistic achievement and a commercially-oriented survey of 1930s blues trends, and the mythic Johnson who has been transformed from a talented but obscure Mississippi guitarist into a romantic legend. It should be available at all better bookstores, but if your dealer can't get it for you, you can buy it online by clicking this link.
Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson (Yazoo Records) is a CD counterpart to the book, freshly remastered from original 78 recordings. It includes tracks by many of Johnson's mentors and models, including numbers like "King of Spades," "Cruel Hearted Woman" and "Milk Cow Blues," to which he wrote direct answer songs, pieces by Lonnie Johnson and Son House from which he adapted vocal or guitar riffs, and other records that give a sense of the broader scene in which he did his work. There is more information about it on my music and albums page, and it should be available at all good record stores. If for some reason your local store can't help you, you can also buy it online by clicking this link, and you can hear samples of a few tracks at the Yazoo site.
"an indispensable revisionist history of the
"I don't think the reviews of Escaping the Delta that appeared at the time of its publication went far enough in describing its genius.... Wald puts you inside Johnson's head...he shows you what Johnson decided to play and when and puts forward convincing reasons why, shows you what sources he was combining, how he changed them, honored them....an extraordinary thought-movie... If the jacket copy primed me to come away disabused of my awe for Johnson's musicianship, instead it was doubled."
"This book is amazing. Well researched, opinionated and
controversial (I'm sure a couple of barroom fistfights will occur), but
written with such honesty, intelligence and love for the music that
it's difficult to sum up my feelings in a couple of sentences."
"Wald's view of American culture is wonderfully bold and
bracing. . . In the context of most writing about popular music,
"Escaping the Delta" is more than a tonic. It's champagne, Muddy
Waters' favorite drink."
"Throughout, Wald writes better than anyone else ever has about the
blues. If you read only one book about blues -- maybe ever -- read this
one. Not just for bluesniks; this is great Black history, too".
"I'm enormously impressed by this history of the blues.
It strips away the starry-eyed romanticism that has afflicted most writing
about blues (including some of mine, in the past) and traces the genre's
history as a living breathing popular art form."
"a gentle wake-up call, and by far the best of the three books
on the Johnson myth published this year."
"the most important theoretical book on African
American music (in general) of the new millenium ...Don't be put off
by my using the word "theoretical," folks! Wald is NOT an
academic wonk but a practicing musician who is also a very fine writer...
So, not only is this book important, it's a very good read."
ONE: THE WORLD THAT JOHNSON KNEW
WHAT IS BLUES?
The word has been interpreted in many ways, but first it was a black pop style, and it remained a black pop style until the 1960s. Then, it retroactively became a folk style, and all the rules were changed.
RACE RECORDS: BLUES QUEENS, CROONERS, AND HOKUM
LIVE MUSIC: WHAT THE RECORDS MISSED
HOLLERS, MOANS, AND "DEEP BLUES"
THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA
TWO: ROBERT JOHNSON
A LIFE REMEMBERED
The facts about Johnson’s life are few and often disputed. This chapter includes the handful of solid facts, but concentrates on Johnson as he was remembered by those who knew him. This oral history, the memories of childhood friends and bluesmen like Johnny Shines and Son House, gives a feel not only for Johnson as a person, but for the people and world that surrounded him.
THE FIRST SESSIONS, PART ONE: GOING FOR SOME HITS:
THE FIRST SESSIONS, PART TWO: REACHING BACK
THE SECOND SESSIONS: THE PROFESSIONAL
THREE: THE LEGACY
JUMP SHOUTERS, SMOOTH TRIOS, AND DOWN HOME SOUL
For a quarter century after Johnson’s death in 1938, blues remained central to the black pop scene. This chapter sketches the music’s further evolution, from the Kansas City shouters and piano trios of the 1940s through the golden age of Rhythm and Blues, and the “down home” blues from Chicago and Detroit. It focuses on stars including Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker, and Dinah Washington, looks at the range of styles that black listeners considered to be blues, and shows how the music finally ceased to have a place in the pop mainstream.
THE BLUES CULT: PRIMITIVE FOLK
ART AND THE ROOTS OF ROCK
FARTHER ON UP THE ROAD: WHEREFORE AND WHITHER THE BLUES
APPENDIX: SO WHAT ABOUT THE DEVIL?
Reviews and interviews:
Short piece with photos about my Memphis signing.