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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. The tastes of black music listeners had moved in a mostly different direction towards soul, funk, rap, disco and did not encompass rural blues singers. The fascination of modern listeners with Johnson, according to Wald, is due to a romantic spirit -- a boredom with the life of the everyday -- and a search for a past full of authentic individuals who knew their own wants and needs and who projected themselves in their art.
Wald's book begins with a history of the blues before Robert Johnson focusing on the commercial character the music had at the outset. He gives a great deal of attention to the Blues queens -- Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey -- and to their smooth-voiced male sucessors, particularly Leroy Carr, as mentioned above, and Lonnie Johnson. These singers profoundly influenced Johnson's music and his ambitions to become a popular entertainer and not a cult figure.
The central part of Wald's book consists of a brief biography of Johnson -- summarizing the various speculations on his life -- and of a song-by-song discussion of his recordings. In this discussion, Wald discusses the music with a great deal of intelligence and understanding. He shows very clearly Johnson's debts to his more commercially sucessful predecessors and explains as well the variety of blues styles Johnson encompassed in his songs.
The final portion of the book carries the story of the blues forward beyond Robert Johnson's death. It shows how the music at first evolved into a combo style, again approaching popular music, which took blues into a different direction from Johnson's recordings. The book concludes with a discussion of Johnson's rediscovery, and the discovery of other Delta blues singers, beginning in the 1960's.
Wald clearly knows his material. For all his criticism of the mythmaking cult over Johnson, Wald's love for this music shines through, as he is the first to admit. Upon reading this book, I spent considerable time relistening to Johnson's music and felt I came away with a better understanding and appreciation of it than I had before. The goal of every book about music should be to encourage its readers to return to (or get to know) the songs, or what have you, themselves. The book meets this goal admirably.
There are few books on the blues that manage to be both scholarly, critical, and inspiring and Wald's book is one of these few. I do not find Wald's thesis as unsusual as he claims it to be, but it certainly will be worth exploring by listeners and readers who do not have a large backround in this music.
In music, a fair and careful historical account will in the long run perform a greater service to the music and the artists than will legends and stereotypes. The Delta singers discussed in this book, Robert Johnson, Son House, Skip James, Charley Patton, were musicians of talent. Understanding their story can only increase the listener's appreciation of the blues.
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HALL OF FAMEon August 7, 2004
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.

Wald continues into an examination of how contemporary black audiences and musicians of the time had vastly different views of the music than modern cult purists, and the music of Robert Johnson and his contemporaries can only be truly understood by looking at it in these proper contexts. In the end we find that Johnson was still a genius but was much more human than his modern legends suggest. The same goes for the blues in general. Other reviewers have noted that Wald's writing tends to be overly academic and boring. I concur that he does tend to over-elaborate on his arguments, providing voluminous evidence for points that he already made convincingly long before. That leads to believable research breakthroughs, but a book that is sometimes much more wordy than it needs to be. But other than that minor weakness, this is an outstanding accomplishment of musicology, and will prove fascinating for blues aficionados as well as anyone interested in the history of American music. [~doomsdayer520~]
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on May 4, 2004
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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on December 27, 2014
Much of what you think you know about the blues (and popular music in general) isn't true. But as is usually the case, the truth is more interesting than the myths. Some blues singers continued a tradition that went back to field hollers, but most didn't. And most sang every kind of music, not just blues: show tunes; country; (which also had a lot of African influence); folk; jazz; whatever their audiences wanted. It was first the record companies who started classifying music, and tagging Black singers as "blues" and white singers as "country." It was done for marketing reasons, an aid to them selling more records. It wasn't about the artists' deep attachment to a particular type of music; most of them wanted to make it big singing whatever kind of music would pay. Some of them were forgotten about for years until the blues revival of the 1960s, which Wald also discusses at length.

Let me say here that I got a cloth edition of this book from the library; it didn't come with a CD. If you want to follow the chapters of the book that cover Robert Johnson's recordings, you will want to have Robert Johnson's complete recordings (The Centennial Collection). If you have Amazon Prime, you have free access to it.

I don't read a lot about music, but I read a lot of history, and music is part of history. Some of the books relating to music history that I've liked are: two wonderful books by Ned Sublette (The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square and Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. On US jazz, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong and Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf,Black Music, White Business: Illuminating the History and Political Economy of Jazz. I also recommend Frank Kofsky's other book on jazz--John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960's, although his mechanistic view on the relationship between politics and music has nothing to do with Marxism despite claims by both him and his critics. Nevertheless, the influence of the Black Struggle on music was very real, and Kofsky's polemics with critics who wanted to deny this obvious fact are fun reading.
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on March 11, 2005
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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VINE VOICEon April 25, 2009
Seeing colossal blues hero Robert Johnson on the cover of Elijah Wald's "Escaping the Delta" made me pause with doubt because what I certainly was not in the market for was another feverish bio of Robert Johnson that focused on the mystical to the exclusion of all else. Most pleasantly, this is definitely not the case with this interesting and readable work.
The book starts slowly as author Wald consumes nearly seventy pages with an exhaustive history of the pop music scene of the Delta region of the American South. Chronicling juke box lists, the careers of artists both well-known and obscure, and emphasizing his thesis over and over again, Wald lays thorough groundwork for the chapters that follow. Once you get rolling, however, the book is a pleasurable read and we get a complete overview of the ingredients that went into the blues, its curious nurturing process, the artists themselves, and the fruits that grew from the seeds of these musical pioneers. We even get a track-by-track analysis of the songs Johnson recorded, a canon of work that has possibly influenced more people than any other body of work in rock and blues history.
Wald's purpose is to shine a light onto the real world of working musicians during the early part of the century and show that the invention of the blues was not what you might have been told. Seminal artists like Ma Rainey, Charley Patton, Son House, and, yes, even Robert Johnson did indeed play the blues, but they also played lots of other music from Bing Crosby to Broadway and even hillbilly songs. The musicians of this era were simply trying to get paid as working musicians, which meant playing what the people wanted to hear. Then, as now, popular music was rarely genre specific, it need only be catchy, danceable, and innocuous. Say what you will about Robert Johnson's work, it is certainly not often described using any of those adjectives and the earthier, acoustic blues Johnson is known for has never had a huge pop music audience, then or now. The author devotes much of his time to pounding this point home, but it's a worthwhile endeavor if you care to see the reality instead of the fantasy.
Wald's knowledge of the artists and songs and his dogged devotion to cutting through the baloney and getting to the facts within the folktales is fresh and largely free of hyperbole. There are plenty of revelations in the book, for instance: I had no knowledge of the true roots of hillbilly music and how popular this music form was among blacks or how white executives suppressed it for the purposes of segregation. Also, we are given a unique behind-the-scenes peek into the milieu of the musicians commonly referred to as blues artists during the early part of the 20th century. It is both fascinating and informational reading for me because Wald demystifies the clichéd image of the tormented blues singer, schooled by Satan, and destined for a life of misery that matched their lyrical tales, myths spread by the single-minded agendas of the record company men who were trying to market a product. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and scores of others, who were influenced by these artists and their live hard, die young reputation, particularly the infamous Mr. Johnson, helped perpetuate these exaggerations to their fans and thus we have the distortions Wald sought to correct.
You don't have to be a fan of the blues to appreciate the breadth of research and myth-busting that is achieved here. Elijah Wald has put a great deal of research into this book and augmented it with the words of those who were there, living and playing the blues (along with all the other genres of music their audiences wanted to hear). I have read some of the reviews and the angry ones seem to be from fans that have had their romantic world of lonesome crossroads in the middle of the night, tortured souls howling at the moon, and deals with the devil put through the shredder of reality. While that's a lot of hard luck for them; it's good news for those of us who'd rather get the straight dope than the well-worn fairy tales. I believe any fan of popular music will enjoy it and take away a much more informed mind about an art form and an artist long on superstitions, folktales, and legends but woefully short on facts and candor.
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on April 23, 2011
Those who claim this book isn't about Robert Johnson have half a point, but missed Wald's. In examining what Johnson meant and means to two very different blues audiences--his thirties contemporaries, and the post-fifties revivalists--Wald peels off layers of mythology that would otherwise prevent us from ever seeing the historical Robert Johnson. In doing so, he performs an invaluable service to any who are genuinely interested in the historical Robert Johnson. But this very act demands that modern blues fans examine the romantic commitments that have lead us to view Johnson the way we do. This is not a task for the faint-hearted, but Wald is the perfect guide--sensitive, deeply knowledgeable, poised, and never an ideologue or a scold. In the simple act of panning back from Johnson and revealing him in his historical and musical context, Wald exposes an astonishing machinery of delusion. Robert Johnson emerges unharmed from the operation, because it turns out that our delusions are hardly necessary to appreciate his accomplishment. Still, in slipping our illusions out from under us, Wald engages in a tricky business, for some would prefer to keep them in place. If this book isn't entirely about Robert Johnson, it is only because it is also about us.
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on July 9, 2014
The known facts of Robert Johnson's life have been written up in books and magazines ad nauseum since his recordings were released on LP's by Columbia in the 60's and he was subsequently "rediscovered", but Mr. Wald's perspective is fresh and totally engrossing : placing Robert Johnson's music in perspective with his sources and the trends of that time and place. As a guitarist, I couldn't put it down, and often refer back to it in order to better understand his songs. Excellent in all respects.
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on November 6, 2015
Excellent research and background into the Blues. Thank goodness for youtube, so you can have a listen to these artist that you probably never heard before. This is necessary so you can understand the differences between the blues singers. Elijah's love for the blues and the true history and not just the romantic view comes shining through and for that I applaud him. A must read for old school blues lovers and for ones who want to learn the real history of the music. Robert Johnson is only the tip of the iceberg and that's a good thing.
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on August 6, 2014
A great book discussing the history of the blues but not too much about Johnson - maybe 20% of the text. Still, I definitely recommend it to any serious blues fan. The way it's written is great as it challenges most stereotypes about the genre and thoroughly presents and analyses the context in which Johnson played.
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