Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta (Amistad,
Robert Johnson has turned a corner in his career. For years he was known only to a select few; blues aficionados who had purchsed Columbia's King of the Delta Blues LP, and carefully learned every iconic note and syllable. The legend that clung to his memory about his selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for the ability to play the guitar, and all the mystery that surrounded him, only added to his cachet. Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Ry Cooder are among the hundreds of guitarists who were awestruck by the music they heard on that first vinyl record. Columbia issued a second volume of King of the Delta Blues in 1970. The covers of these records were decorated with moody, attractive paintings, as there was no known photograph of this mysterious bluesman.
When the CD revolution embraced Johnson it was with a remastered
complete collection called The Complete Recordings in 1990. It sold so
well that the young executives at Columbia searched in vain for their hot new
star...to send him on tour. I wonder who broke the news to them that Robert
Johnson had died in 1938? There were no books, only the odd magazine article
which shared the tired rumours and tales. Finally there appeared two photos;
buried treasure, one posed Johnson in a suit looking handsome and debonair,
the other relaxed and casual, holding a cigarette. Then the books began to appear.
At first the writers simply told the stories and expanded what had been written in the magazines and liner notes. Then a couple of films searched for the truth in ways that only film-makers can. Now the Robert Johnson biography has become a cottage industry. We reviewed the first attempt at myth-smashing a few months ago and now Elijah Wald, musician and writer, offers the latest interpretation of Johnson's place in the blues canon. And it's a mixed bag.
First of all, let me say that all of us (Eric and Keith and Ry and all the rest who have held Johnson to be such an influence) have always taken the mystical elements of Johnson's life with a grain of salt. It's a neat little tale, young guy sells soul to devil for great skill, dies early and reneges on the deal by proclaiming Jesus at the end. But I'm not sure any of us took it all that seriously. We were simply mesmerized by the guitar playing, the other-worldly slide, the dark lyrics, and the juxtaposition of different styles, the comedy, the longing, the real life that we found in the songs of this king of the delta blues. It was all there in one nifty package...and it had a story too!
Wald is fascinated by the dichotomy he sees in Johnson's career. Why was Robert not more popular when he first released his records in the 30s? And why did he become so revered in the 60s and 70s? He tries to answer these questions by looking at blues musicians who did achieve their success in the 30s, artists who, Wald claims, deserve the acclaim. He provides a brief history of the blues from W.C Handy through Mamie Smith, Papa Charlie Jackson, Son House, and on and on. He gets it all. He knows his stuff.
He then deals with Robert Johnson in an interesting way. He looks at each one of Johnson's recorded canon. A song at a time. It's a fascinating overview of the collection. Blues singers of the period were entertainers. They had large repertoires of all sorts of songs. When playing in a juke joint you had to be current, and your material had to be varied. People wanted a good time, after all they only got to go out one night a week. You had to give them a break from the workaday world. He argues that we don't see that varied repertoire in Johnson's work. I would argue that it exists and that, although we don't see recorded versions of popular songs of the day...the styles represented in the recorded work are broad.
Wald makes interesting arguments, and he certainly has done the research. I was compelled to keep reading even when he would say things I didn't agree with. He talks about the blues being "reshaped by ...white fans," who brought with them "very different standards and dreams" than the juke dancers of the 30s. We applied a facade of romanticism to the functional music made by the originators. This is probably true, but the white audience also extended the lifespan of this essentially American art form. In his autobiography BB King talks about the debt he owes a generation of white fans who gave him an audience during the 70s, when he had been playing to empty halls.
The book is subtitled Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. I'm not sure that Johnson would make that claim, and neither would any of his fans. So far as I know only W.C. Handy was egotistical enough to claim to have invented the blues. And even he was influenced by that unknown fellow with the guitar who sang about where the "Southern cross the Dog." The blues was not invented, it developed. Robert Johnson represents one step in that development; for some of us, maybe the key step. He got us listening in the first place. Fortunately, Wald admits that neither the romantic legend nor the plain history of the blues tells the whole story. No, the whole story contains flesh and blood mixed with equal amounts of myth and legend. That's the corner Johnson has turned. After a few years of activity, then long years of obscurity, then a decade or two of legendary status, now it's time to listen to the music he made, and judge him on that. On the visceral quality of his voice and playing, on the poetic language of his lyrics, on the images, and promise that his music contains. Never a pretender, he will always be the King of the Delta blues. Wald is just another stone in his passway.