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Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

Jim Santella By

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Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
Elijah Wald
Softcover; 342 pages
ISBN: 0-06-052427-8
Amistad Press
2004

A scholarly work that required extensive research on the part of the author, Escaping the Delta makes an excellent reference. This isn't just some casual easy reading. Elijah Wald has included detailed notes in a separate section at the back of the book to amplify and extend the many arguments that he presents. His theories are valid, and most of what he posits holds water.

A biography of Robert Johnson consumes only a few chapters. It's all there, though, and Wald discusses each of Johnson's recorded songs in detail. The theme that runs through his book portrays Johnson as an ordinary man with ordinary tastes in music. He follows that up with the argument that blues was just an outgrowth of the popular music of the day, and that most Mississippi Delta households had no special allegiance to it.

Who's to say? We weren't there. But Wald gathers extensive evidence through numerous interviews, old newspaper and magazine advertisements, demographic studies, and record industry discographical and sales information. He paints a picture of the music world that Robert Johnson knew and how it affected his songwriting.

Wald points to Johnson's blues predecessors in the world around him for parallels and for obvious influences. Charley Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown and Skip James made up the first wave of Delta innovators. Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Albert King, John Lee Hooker, and Sonny Boy Williamson II came later. The author draws several comparisons between earlier recordings and those of Robert Johnson, leading to theories about who invented what. His arguments are convincing, and come supported by extensive background information.

Statistics and glaring generalities, however, cannot always be trusted. Nor can we fully trust interview comments from Johnson's associates. Opinions sometimes vary, memories fade, and facts may become distorted unintentionally during the course of an interview. Still, many of Wald's facts come from reliable sources. Some come from indisputable sources, and others are drawn from conjecture. At no point, however, does the author press a point that cannot be logically analyzed in a convincing manner.

"32-20 Blues, Johnson's second single, appears to be merely a guitar version of Skip James' "22-20 Blues. And, as for the story of Johnson selling his soul to the devil, Wald offers a thorough discussion of the tale that had been set long before Johnson was born. He points out that virtuosi such as Paganini and Tartini were blessed with the same myth, as was bluesman Tommy Johnson. Wald presents convincing arguments and closes with a look forward at where blues is headed and how it will fare. The book comes with a five-minute CD that includes Leroy Carr's "Mean Mistreater Mama and take one of Robert Johnson's Traveling Riverside Blues.

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