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on 19 May 2004
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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on 29 December 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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on 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.

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.
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VINE VOICEon 24 January 2005
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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on 7 March 2006
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.
I had high expectations for this book after reading the other reviewers' comments. However, the author's main thrust is that we have misinterpreted the place of the blues in American history and essentially over-romanticized what was popular music at the time.
Unfortunately he makes this point over and over and over again and its gets extremely tedious believe me.
Its not much of a Johnson biograhy either in terms of substantive facts. The book takes an 'evidence based approach' and where there isn't much evidence it prefers not to pass judgment. A sound principle perhaps but ultimatley a flawed concept for a book that needs some fleshy facts to it.
Overall too much dour, waffly, pontification not enough insightful facts.
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on 4 November 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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on 10 September 2009
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.

As a life long blues fan this got me digging around my old vinyl records looking for new stuff as there were artists listed that i had never heard of....

The book puts into context the journey of the inception of the blues, the early roots, through the life of Robert Johnson, primarily focusing on the music rather than the so many of the mythical stories which have been written about the man. Looking at the people who were popular around the times that johnson was recording and where Johnson's musical inspirations came from and the people who influenced him.

The book is very well researched with lots of quotes from bluesmen who were still alive at the time of writing, and also people who knew Johnson.

The authors interpretation of how time has influenced and shaped the 00's view of where the blues came from, and how this opinion changed from the 30's through to the 60's and to the modern day, and how the musical journey has changed the view of where the music originated.

A great reference book that I would highly recommend to anyone who is just discovered the blues or a lifelong fan like me, this book is thought provoking and will question how you see Robert Johnson in the history of the blues? Is he the greatest ever blues guitarist or was he just a good delta guitarist of his time whose popularity was created by Blues revivalists in the 60s who were looking for raw blues?
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on 23 July 2015
Brilliant reading. Certainly put a spin on the poor down and out blues players. The names in the book were after-all the pop artists of their time, they played gigs where folk turned up and danced, there is a clue there how to get happy and dance to a blues number! The blues artists who are named in the book are the ones who made it into popular recordings, the author names lots of blues players who didn't all because there wasn't a market for their style or songs, or even if their voice was too high or too low. we are talking commodities, if your face didn't fit you didn't record. There was a lot of facts presented that when you look at or think it over the author is so true, what is Blues and what defines it. Being a big blues fan I have collected a lot of albums and when certain tracks were mentioned in the book I could listen to the tracks which made good listening and even better comments from the author. You can read up on Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, Texas Blues etc. etc. and see what is said. A lot of research must have gone into this book, a most enjoyable read and I can honestly say I haven't read a 'music' book quite like it. 10/10
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on 19 March 2015
The endorsements and recommendations inside the covers say it all. The author challenges general assumptions and the myths created during the 60s and 70s around "original" blues players and what it meant to be authentic. The overlooked, forgotten "minor", segregated, working musicians get the respect they deserve. Many TV documentaries and books reveal details about the slanted and incomplete information put around, and slowly reveal the truth of the matter. This book with it's accurate analysis does more than most to get into the lives of those who created the foundation of modern music. You can also get a copy from the Cat Head store in Clarksdale MS and the guy there will amaze you with stories of the Delta and the music industry which will have you standing at the crossroads with that old sinking feeling...
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on 23 November 2012
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 lifestyle more than music itself. Maybe it helps them escape their 9-5 office job.... The author points out that the majority of early blues musicians where not tortured souls who walked the state of mississippi looking for their next meal. They where talented musicians looking to make some good money and get into mainstream music. The blues today sounds raw and alternative but back in the day it was considerd popular music. Okay....there is not a great deal about Robert Johnson but how much can you write about a guy who spent two days in a recording studio , was unknown even in his day an then died at 27???????? Elijah touches on the fact that the blues has been hijacked by white romantics that dream of going back in time to live that life...Most of these musicians hated the delta and couldnt wait to get out!!! It would appear that Robert Johnson was playing the music that could earn him a living and if he would have been born 70 years later he would have most probably be raping his way to fame........I myself am a big blues fan but love it for the music not the romantic myths that have been around for many years!! THIS BOOK COMES HIGHLY RATED..
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