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A novel take on a legend of the Blues,
This review is from: Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Paperback)
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.
The second section looks at the life and music of Robert Johnson, including an overview of what we know about the life, career and death of Johnson as well as a detailed critique of the 29 recordings that he left. Wald is obviously a fan but not a rose tinted one, and does not hesitate to emphasise the bad as well as praise the good, looking at both the lyrics and the music, and Johnson's influences (such as Kokomo Arnold & Son House). As other reviewers have noted, this section is best read whilst listening to the actually recordings, (I recommend the two albums King Of The Delta Blues Singers Vol. 2-King of the Delta Blues Singers because of their superior mastering). Finally, Wald looks at Johnson's legacy and hypothesises where Johnson might have gone next musically if he had lived.
The third section then examines how the Blues developed after Robert Johnson, focussing on how popular history has revised the importance of, and even written out completely, very influential Blues artists such as Dinah Washington because they don't meet the supposed criteria of an authentic Blues artist, before concluding how the myth of Robert Johnson developed in the 60's and has grown almost unchallenged ever since. Finally an appendix looks at supposed role of the Devil in Johnson's life and music and again highlights how one element in a complex personality has been overemphasised. Both the first and third section is best read whilst listening to the box sets The History Of Rhythm & Blues, Volume 1 The Pre-War Years 1925-1942 History Of Rhythm&Blues #3rocknroll Years 1952-1957 The History Of Rhythm And Blues 1942-1952 : The Pre Rocknroll Years, which contains tracks by most of the artists mentioned. These are well mastered, very reasonably priced and contain a wealth of information on both the artists as well as an overview of how the music developed.
Wald writes in an engaging style, is clear and uses lots of sources to back up his points, mainly eyewitness accounts such as Johnny Shines. Even if you don't agree with all of his conclusions this is an exceptionally well presented argument which manages to redress some of the oversimplifications and mythology of one of the most important music artists of the late 20th Century.