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Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues [Paperback]

Elijah Wald
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Jan 2005

The life of blues legend Robert Johnson becomes the centerpiece for this innovative look at what many consider to be America's deepest and most influential music genre. Pivotal are the questions surrounding why Johnson was ignored by the core black audience of his time yet now celebrated as the greatest figure in blues history.

Trying to separate myth from reality, biographer Elijah Wald studies the blues from the inside -- not only examining recordings but also the recollections of the musicians themselves, the African-American press, as well as examining original research. What emerges is a new appreciation for the blues and the movement of its artists from the shadows of the 1930s Mississippi Delta to the mainstream venues frequented by today's loyal blues fans.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Amistad (1 Jan 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060524278
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060524272
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.3 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 50,521 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


“If you read only one book about this one.” (Starred Booklist on Escaping the Delta)

About the Author

Elijah Wald es escritor y músico con veinte años de experiencia reportando sobre los orígenes musicales y sobre la música misma en diferentes regiones del mundo. Fue escritor y asesor para el proyecto de múltiples medios del Instituto Smithsonian llamado The Mississippi: River and Song (El Río Mississippi: el río y su música), y también recibió un premio por la biografía Josh White: Society Blues (Josh White, Blues de la Sociedad). Una sobrevista de su obra se puede conseguir en

Elijah Wald is a writer and musician with twenty years experience covering roots and world music. He was writer and consultant on the Smithsonian multimedia project The Mississippi: River of Song, and is the author of the award-winning biography Josh White: Society Blues.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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First Sentence
THERE HAS PROBABLY BEEN MORE ROMANTIC FOOLISHNESS written about blues in general, and Robert Johnson in particular, than about any other genre or performer of the twentieth century. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
90 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb - nothing but the blues 19 May 2004
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book looked interesting to me. It turned out to be compelling.
Like many others, I have always thought of the blues as a traditional, black musical style rooted in rural poverty, slavery, violence and dark bargains with the devil.
Escaping the Delta gently debunks these myths, and replaces them with an explanation that is both more interesting and more convincing. The book is intelligently structured, with an introductory section, a song-by-song treatment of Johnson's recordings (listen as you read!) and a rather understated wrap-up.
This is not a biography, and it leaves much of Johnson's life, relationships and death untouched. But Wald's point is that Johnson has been hijacked and turned into a modern phenomenon that would be unrecognizable to him and his peers, so he rightly focuses on the legend rather than the life.
If you are new to the blues, buy a copy of Escaping the Delta and a CD of the complete recordings of Robert Johnson, settle down with your favourite beverage and enjoy this book. If you are already into the blues, do all of the above, dig deeper into your record collection....and be ready for some surprises.
I have nothing but praise for this book, which is immaculately researched, fresh in its thinking, and always entertaining. I recommend it unreservedly.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Serious Work Which Challenges the Stereotypes 29 Dec 2006
The American reviews inside the cover make it clear that this caused quite a stir in the States. This is a terrific book - and one which, for once, challenges the blues fan a little, rather than providing familiar stereotypes of lonesome Delta bluesmen developing their genius in rural isolation. For anyone who loves Robert Johnson, Son House, Skip James et al, this will be a treat - but a treat which will possibly change the way you regard their music. (It even comes with a CD!)
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Chuck away your romantic notions (if you had any). The blues wasn't the heart-aching voice of the opressed, but the down-home pop music of its time. The 'names' were professionally slick, and lived a good(-ish) life.
One could probably quibble with some of the interpretations of the music's history, but this is fascinating and valuable re-consideration of the story of the blues as we thought we knew it.
It's a shame in a way, because I always rather liked the more traditional take, but it's probably about time I grew up anyway.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A novel take on a legend of the Blues 29 May 2010
For a lifelong Blues fan, and lover of the of the Delta Blues, this book was a revelation and helped me to re-evaluate my opinion not only of Robert Johnson but also of many other artists who were his contemporaries, as well as the place of the Blues in the history of 20th Century popular music.

The book starts with Wald's own personal recollection of how he started questioning the myth of Robert Johnson and investigating the reality. The rest of the book is then divided into three main sections.

The first section puts Robert Johnson into his cultural and historical context. Chapter 1 discusses what is actually meant by the term 'the Blues' and looks at how music and musicians are classified as belonging to one genre or another. Wald makes the valid point that market forces have contributed much to our popular (mis)understanding of the Blues and that this is very much at odds with what people in the 20-30's would have understood as 'Blues music'.

The remaining chapters then offer a survey of Blues music and its most popular performers from the start of the 20th Century up to the 30's. Wald's main points are that Blues was much more varied than the 12 bar, Country/ Delta style, but also included the hugely popular female dominated Classic Blues of Bessie Smith and Victoria Spivey as well as the piano/ guitar blues of Leroy Carr, Tampa Red & Peetie Wheatstraw. That the recorded works of the major artists does not accurately reflect the varied repetoire that most musicians played or their ability to cross-over to different genres. Finally that the image of the dungeree, plaid shirt, country bumpkin folk singer also marginalises the professionalism of those singers as well as the real and butal poverty they were trying to escape.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Debunking the Myths About the Blues 4 Nov 2010
If you love the blues and haven't read this book, then you should read it right away. If you're already familiar with the myths about the blues propagated by the likes of Lomax and Charters, then you'll find this text a real eye-opener. The author makes no apology for presenting his personal opinions, given the scarcity of reliable facts about the origin of the blues, and about Robert Johnson's life, but his views are carefully researched and meticulously detailed.
At the same time he carefully analyses the myth-making about the blues that has gone on over the past eighty years or so - and concludes that most of it is based on romanticised bunkum.
If, as Wald argues, the blues really was merely one kind of popular music favoured by American working-class blacks in the early years of the last century, then it is even more remarkable that it went on to inspire a devotion to its musical form that has long outlasted any other pop genre. It is undeniable that the influence of the blues has reached far beyond its origins to almost every part of the planet.
In my view Wald's interpretation is far more credible than those of Lomax and Charters (and others like them), and, unlike the blues purists, he does not impose a narrow definition of the blues but instead sees it as an evolving art form that is worth keeping alive, rather then being confined to a metaphorical glass case in a musical museum.
Wald is careful to leave his readers with their self-respect intact, whatever their own opinions, and allows you to come to your own conclusions.
I found the writing compelling, the analysis of Johnson's recordings absolutely fascinating, and Wald's conclusions left space for me to preserve my own love of the blues intact.
Highly recommended.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great delivery time. Just what was ordered. Many thanks. Delighted.
Published 5 days ago by Ivan
3.0 out of 5 stars Escaping the Delta
I'm not sure what I expected from this book but whatever it was, I didn't get it.
This is more suited to those with a fairly serious interest in blues history. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Peter Hendry
3.0 out of 5 stars More about blues fans than the blues
I found this book an okay read, very interesting in parts, less so in other parts; my frustration was that it was really about the delusions of blues fans than anything else, and... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Dog in a Flat Cap
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book, now pay your taxes
One of the last books I bought from these dodgy dealers before the tax avoidance scandal broke. I refuse to give my hard-earned money to a greedy corporation that is stealing money... Read more
Published 15 months ago by richard carr
5.0 out of 5 stars A new approach
This book, though I haven't got through it yet, puts the music of the early blues artists in its right place and shows how the outsiders' views of what the music of those days was... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Perttunen Antero T J
5.0 out of 5 stars Present for husband
Very pleased with it - gift for husband he like's musician & singer biographies & autobiographies & is a blues fan
Published 17 months ago by chris
Elijah hits on many points that have often crossed my mind......I have met many blues fans and while most are genuine , there are a few that seem to be in love with the blues... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Warren
5.0 out of 5 stars Blues lovers
This is an interesting and well written book for anyone who loves and is interested in Robert Johnson and the blues generally.
Published on 28 April 2011 by Mr. J. W. Cox
5.0 out of 5 stars Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the invention of the blues
A really great book, which has certainly changed by view of the origins of the Blues, and who were the famous originators of this great music. Read more
Published on 10 Sep 2009 by G. Wraith
3.0 out of 5 stars an alternative but laborious take on the blues
A great concept for a book - take a subject which we all take for granted and turn it on its head then support it by a myriad soundbites and anecdotes. Read more
Published on 7 Mar 2006 by bigflat
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