Monday, January 07, 2008

Escaping the Delta – Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald

This book has a very interesting thesis – basically that the traditional bluesmen that are enshrined by so many (including myself and the author) were really “performers” and the fact that they are known as bluesmen is primarily due to the songs that they were “allowed” to record, not necessarily what was in their repertoire.

It’s a concept that should be obvious when thinking about it, but growing up at a time when record companies have created strict genres, it certainly never occurred to me. Although these musicians may or may not have loved the blues, many of them were paid entertainers who played what the people wanted. In the days before a performer was classified by their specific speciality this would mean that they might play Broadway musicals, country and western, pop tunes, and just about anything else that would be requested. Some “bluesmen” interviewed for this book actually claim that they preferred other styles of music but got pigeon-holed by the record companies or simply were capitalizing on what was then a popular style of music. He theorizes that some of the “real” players may have simply been copyists that would be looked down upon in this day and age and as hopping on a band wagon!

Wald also mentions that there was a lot more racial crossovers than we may think, as well. Even though many businesses were segregated, music was color-blind and many groups could be interracial which would add to the blurring of racial divides in musical styles. Apparently, early on, it was not necessarily unusual to find a black fiddler or a white blues singer or any combination within a group.

Elijah includes this information to give us more of a background and an understanding of the times that Robert Johnson was living in. While he agrees that Johnson was a genius, he concedes that many of his contemporaries may not have thought so, and for good reason! Not that he wasn’t a great player, singer, and songwriter, but taken in context of the times, without the mythos that has grown around him, many probably thought of him as simply another traveling musician.

All this is used as a basis for his extensive overview of Johnson’s recorded works, including possible origins of some of his tunes (including similar songs and artists that he most likely was familiar with) along with an attempt to give us an idea of how the songs were perceived at the time.

After running through all of the recorded songs Elijah spends the last couple of chapters exploring the changes that blues music went through after Johnson's death.

He gives lots of interesting information but never pretends to be anything but subjective with his ideas and freely admits to some of the shortcomings that have brought about the blues stereotypes that exist to this day.

All in all this is a compelling read, especially for someone like me who loves the music but doesn't know a lot of the background and how everyone and everything relates.