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The blues was invented by white people: Although that’s the incendiary thesis behind Elijah Wald’s provocative new book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, it’s unlikely to anger many African-Americans. Because Wald isn’t talking about the music per se; he’s challenging the way the nostalgic modern idea of the blues has been constructed by the liberal, supposedly educated white audience that has constituted the music’s main fan base for the last few decades. Readers are likely to be pissed off in direct proportion to their having bought into the myth that the “real” blues is an authentic folk expression that taps into the hoodoo mystery of primitive black America, a devil-haunted cri de coeur that rises like fog from the cotton fields of Mississippi. Readers are likely to be pissed off in direct proportion to their being Greil Marcus.
No, seriously: Just about everybody who made Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings the unlikeliest of platinum-selling smashes has another think coming. Wald hangs his argument on Johnson not just because getting the bluesman’s name in the subtitle and picture on the cover exponentially increases the audience for any book about the blues, but because the cherished myth of the blues has been hung on Johnson by several generations of white admirers. If any one person currently symbolizes the genre, it is the tortured, solitary wanderer who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads at midnight, in the bargain gaining a genius unforetold, and died in 1938, poisoned by a jealous husband at the rock-death-magical age of 27.
Wald starts out on his quest to dismantle the fuzzy-minded exceptionalism that has grown up around Johnson by giving him back his historical context. Even if baby-boomer intellectuals don’t take the crossroads legend literally, they have largely been suckered by the notion that the customary patterns of example and influence don’t apply in Johnson’s case, that though he was of the place and time that was the Mississippi Delta in the ’30s, he somehow stood outside it. The country bluesman is often pictured as a hunched and shadowy figure shouldering his guitar down a lonesome road on the outskirts of town; Wald methodically fills in the missing landscape, taking care to contrast the actuality of the milieu that can be reassembled from historical fragments with the expectations of the cult that latched on to Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, the compilation issued by Columbia Records in 1961.
Wald fleshes out his account with a bevy of inconvenient facts: Laugh-In comic Pigmeat Markham performed in blackface as late as the ’40s. Lawrence Welk “had a strong enough following among black listeners to reach the R&B top ten in 1961”; Mamie Smith’s oft-cited “Crazy Blues” is the first blues recording only if you discount earlier performances by white artists, who had better access to record labels. “The world is not a simple place,” Wald writes, and we should expect Johnson’s story to be no simpler than anyone else’s.
If Escaping the Delta is never less than thoroughly compelling, it’s in part because Wald draws on decades of experience as both musician and writer, having toured on the folk and blues circuit, served as a world-music critic for the Boston Globe, and authored a biography of folkie/bluesman Josh White, as well as Narcocorrido, an excursion into the world of the Mexican drug ballad. As persuasive as the lesson he imparts is, Wald never puts you in mind of the dusty academic, largely because he is his own best pupil. Once a member of the Johnson cult, and still much enamored of the raw “down-home” sound, he had to update his own views as he was drawn ever deeper into
Wald reclaims early recorded country blues as commercially conditioned popular music, as opposed to the untainted folk expression it is sentimentally taken to be. The success of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Paramount recordings in the mid-’20s opened the floodgates. “Within months, the Race catalogs filled with a varied panoply of Southern street-corner players,” Wald observes.
The author also rebalances the history of prewar blues, giving pre-eminence back to the glitzy female shouters of the ’20s. Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, and their ilk not only packed urban theaters, they also were favorites in the countryside. “[D]uring the period when blues was at its peak of popularity, transcending all other black styles,” Wald emphasizes, “the female singers…were always the music’s biggest stars.” The aesthetic represented by these women and their horn-blowing backing bands is at odds with that of Son House, Skip James, and other down-home singer-guitarists, little-known bluesmen whose few recordings sold poorly upon their initial release. But in the ’50s and ’60s, the hip-shakin’ mama decked out in more beads and spangles than a whole crew of Neil Diamond impersonators got crowded out of the record bins by compilations that drew from the collections of shellac fiends who “[b]y emphasizing obscurity as a virtue unto itself…essentially turned the hierarchy of blues stardom upside-down: The more records an artist had sold in 1928, the less he or she was valued in 1958.” Or 1998, for that matter.
Wald shades in the picture further by emphasizing the influence that record men had over which material was cut, released, and distributed, making plain the difference between what (and how) a country bluesman might play live and what was represented by his body of recorded work. Although Johnson and others like him certainly brought some fully conceived, polished performances to their sessions, the three-minute 78 also had a way of codifying as compositions rambling numbers that might originally have consisted of “floating” couplets that could be strung together willy-nilly over any number of arrangements, which themselves might be selected from a stock of interchangeable 12-bar patterns livened up with grab-bag licks.
These licks weren’t always handed down from teacher to student in the flesh via live performance and tutoring. Many early bluesmen conducted part of their apprenticeship at the Victrola or by the radio, Wald argues. And although A&R men wanted original material, juke-joint dancers wanted the hits. It may come as a disappointment to some of their fans to learn that the down-home exemplars could play the human jukebox as well as anyone—they were, after all, the bar bands of their day—and that their tastes weren’t nearly as rigid as those of their admirers. Wald notes:
Charley Pride is not the only African American who ever loved country-and-western music. When Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James got together in the 1960s, they would sometimes trade yodels on Jimmie Rodgers’s “Waiting for a Train.” Just as in the 1920s, no one saw fit to record this duet, since it was not what the public expected of them. So Hurt and James sang the hillbilly harmonies for their own pleasure, then went onstage and played the blues songs that their audience wanted to hear.
Having thus prepared his readers to hear Johnson anew, Wald loads up the CD changer and lets it rip. For blues enthusiasts who aren’t professional musicologists, particularly those unfamiliar with obscure Johnson predecessors and contemporaries such as “Hambone” Willie Newbern and Johnnie Temple, there may be few more illuminating, more satisfying ways to spend a weekend than trekking through The Complete Recordings with Wald as their guide.
Wald holds up to the light the 42 surviving Johnson sides (one of which, the first take of “Traveling Riverside Blues,” appears on the 1998 reissue of King of the Delta Blues Singers but hadn’t been discovered when The Complete Recordings came out in 1990), pinpointing the influence not only of fellow Mississippi guitarists such as House and Charley Patton, but also that of the Tennessee-born singer-pianists Peetie Wheatstraw, based in East St. Louis, and Leroy Carr, who had grown up in Indianapolis. (Selections by these artists can be found on the separately sold companion CD, Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson, not to be confused with a less comprehensive 1990 disc, also on Yazoo, titled simply The Roots of Robert Johnson.) Throughout, the author emphasizes that the notion of the blues as a music that holds guitar heroics above all else is strictly ahistorical, a fancy of post-folk-boom revivalists; in Johnson’s day, the blues was first and foremost a singer’s métier.
Wald finds Johnson “going for some hits” at his earliest session, but once those prepared, up-to-date selections are exhausted, the musician starts dipping into the song bag, plundering his past. Given the veto power of his label, ARC, Johnson was able to cut a surprising variety of material, from the quick-tongued hokum of “They’re Red Hot,” ostensibly a celebration of “hot tamales,” to the folky “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” which Wald calls “by far the most ‘country’ piece he recorded.” Such songs do little to advance the familiar portrayal of Johnson as demon-possessed Delta primitive, but they’re part of his repertoire just the same.
Because ARC didn’t seem to care which approved takes were pressed, it often issued different performances under the same title and catalog number, making it possible to compare Johnson not only with other recording artists but with himself. And so we find him altering performances to better conform to the running time, and we discover that seemingly offhand asides follow a script. Those performances that went unissued reveal how standards have changed. The plaintive first take of “Come on in My Kitchen,” idolized by everyone who approaches it from the self-expressionist perspective of Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, is seen not to pass muster with Johnson’s producers, who required that a “hot, upbeat” second take be made.
Despite Johnson’s concessions to the tastes of his time, much of his work seems to have had little impact before being taken up by the revivalists of the British Invasion. Wald even asserts that “[a]s far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note.”
But having disabused Johnson’s admirers of their dearly held beliefs, Wald offers something richer in their stead: clear-eyed, vibrant history rather than misty fairy tale. In Wald’s narrative, Johnson takes his place as a musician who displayed “genius as an adapter and synthesizer,” one whose recordings provided “a better survey of 1930s trends than we can hear in the work of any other single player.”
In an “Afterthought” titled “So What About the Devil?” Wald goes after the Johnson cult’s most sacred myth, the supposedly demonic origin of the man’s talent, tracking parts of the legend to other performers, such as the unrelated Tommy Johnson (whose preacher brother LeDell was quite the spinner of tales) and Wheatstraw, né William Bunch, who billed himself as “the Devil’s Son-in-Law.” Wald also observes that the lyrics to purportedly witchy Johnson fare such as “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” and “Me and the Devil Blues” were likely to be perceived by their original audiences as jokes rather than the dire prophecies that rock-raised fantasists made of them decades later.
Although Escaping the Delta doesn’t line up Johnson’s mythologizers by name, it ought to make it impossible for its readers to ever again approach Marcus’ Mystery Train—once dubbed “probably the best book ever written about rock” by Rolling Stone—with a straight face. And as for the messy slaverings of the late All Music Guide scribe (and “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” auteur) Cub Koda, who wrote that most “historical naysayers” have “never made a convincing case as where the source of [Johnson’s] apocalyptic visions emanates from,” Wald has formulated the most well-reasoned response yet: It emanates from you. CP
Wald is appearing at Vertigo Books in College Park, at 7 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 29. For more information, call (301) 779-9300.