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Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues Paperback – December 14, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

As far as aficionados are concerned, Johnson (1911?-38) is the central figure in blues history, whose recordings contributed "Cross Road Blues," "Rambling on My Mind," "Come on in My Kitchen," "Sweet Home Chicago," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," "Stones in My Passway," "Hellhound on My Trail," and "Love in Vain" to the core blues repertoire. He was the man promoter John Hammond wanted to represent the blues in the epoch-making Carnegie Hall concert "From Spirituals to Swing" but too late, for a jealous husband had killed him (it was said). Subsequently dubbed "mysterious," he certainly had eluded publicity in his lifetime (that Hammond knew of him seems miraculous). Blues fan, scholar, and player Wald contends that Johnson's obscurity wasn't his fault. He wanted stardom and followed a well-blazed trail toward it, copying and borrowing from big hit-makers of the time, not all of them blues singers or black, by any means. He made little impression on the blues audience of his time, which was identical with the black pop-music audience, who considered blues, along with Armstrong and Ellington's jazz, Crosby's crooning, and Gene Autry's cowboy singing, everyday pop music. Wald doesn't treat Johnson directly until the middle of the book, when he invaluably parses each of his recordings to disclose both borrowings and originalities. The first section describes the musical and social scenes Johnson inhabited, and the last charts how white enthusiasts seized on Johnson as the archetypal bluesman. 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. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Amistad; Book and CD-ROM edition (December 14, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060524278
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060524272
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #75,504 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

For information about Elijah Wald, his books, his recordings, his other writings, and so forth and so on, visit

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

66 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 30, 2004
Format: Paperback
Many Americans have shown a great interest in "roots" music as part of a highly commendable effort to understand our country's life and culture. Much of this interest has, over the years, focused on the blues of the Mississippi Delta and, in particular, on the recordings of singer and guitarist Robert Johnson (1911 -1938). Johnson was an obscure figure in his day and his life and music remain the stuff of legend. He had two recording dates in 1936 and 1937. His music was rediscovered in the 1960s and since that time the sales of his collected recordings have numbered in the millions.
In "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues" (2004), Elijah Wald offers a compelling study of the blues and of blues historiography focusing on Robert Johnson. Wald tries to correct what he deems to be the prevailing myths about Johnson: that he was a primitive folk artist caught in the Mississippi Delta who recorded and perfected a local traditional form of blues. Wald finds Johnson an ambitious young singer who had studied the blues forms popular in his day. Johnson, Wald argues, wanted to escape the Mississippi Delta and pattern himself on the urban blues singers, in particular Leroy Carr, emanating from the midwest and Chicago.
Wald finds that Johnson displayed a variety of blues styles in his recordings and that he was largely ignored by black music listeners of his day because Johnson's early efforts to capture an urban blues style were basically copies of more successful singers and because his songs in the Delta blues style lacked appeal to the urban and sophisticated black audience of the time.
Johnson's music only became well-known, Wald argues, with the rise of English rock, and with his rediscovery by a largely white audience.
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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful By doomsdayer520 HALL OF FAME on August 7, 2004
Format: Paperback
This is a fascinating study of the history of blues music, as distilled through the life of Robert Johnson. As the book progresses, Wald gives us a much clearer understanding of the man and the music on their own terms, and expertly deconstructs the myths and stereotypes that have been propagated by recent revivalists. Modern white fans have a much different view of Robert Johnson and his contemporaries than they had of themselves. The blues was once mainstream pop music among black audiences in the first half of the 20th century, constantly evolving and striving for sales and popularity, rather than the static and mythologized roots music envisioned by today's purists.

Wald provides convincing evidence that Robert Johnson was far from the troubled loner and brooding genius who single-handedly revolutionized western music in miserable backwoods locations, as current fandom mythology would tell you. Instead, Johnson was a professional entertainer who dreamed of being that era's equivalent of a rock star, as did most other blues musicians of the time. Johnson's music, while certainly compelling, wasn't even that unique or original when seen in the context of its time, as Wald finds evidence that he often simply updated the works of his major influences like Leroy Carr, Son House, or Kokomo Arnold. The blues musicians of the time were also adept at many different pop and mainstream styles, and Johnson was no exception, as Wald shows us through Johnson's decidedly non-Delta songs like "They're Red Hot" or "From Four Till Late." Interestingly, Johnson wasn't even very successful or influential in his own time (the 1930's), and was mostly unknown even in the blues community until he was rediscovered by white revivalists in the 60's.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By robert wallace on May 4, 2004
Format: Paperback
I just finished this book, and I have to say that it is the best history of blues I have ever read. It was full of facts, but written in a really readable style -- sort of like a conversation with someone very knowledgable about the subject, more than a lecture. It also made me think about a lot of the music I love in a whole new way.
I have been listening to Robert Johnson's music for years, and after reading Wald's chapters on his recordings I went back over them again. I can't say I agree with every single one of Wald's comments, but I heard so much that I had never noticed before. It really opened up Johnson's music, and made me understand what he was doing, and how he fit into the bigger picture.
I have to admit that I am not as familiar as I should be with some of the other people the book talks about, like Leroy Carr and Dinah Washington, but this made me want to go out and get their records, and learn more. And I guess that's really the point of any book on music.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on March 11, 2005
Format: Paperback
Another book about blues musician Robert Johnson? Yes, and it's worth reading because Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson And The Invention Of The Blues goes beyond just another biographical sketch of Johnson to probe how blues moved beyond its delta roots. There have been other histories of the blues, but this is the first to link Johnson's legacy to the evolution of the genre as a whole, showing how the music was transformed not just by Johnson but by his white listeners, who changed him from an obscure Mississippi guitarist to a legend. If the title sounds familiar, it's because this is a new paperback edition - but wait, there's more: a bonus cd which includes a rare first take of Johnson's 'Traveling Riverside Blues' - the only sing missing from the famous Sony 'complete recordings' set.
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