Book Review – Escaping the Delta by Elijah Wald
I was finally able to get my hands on Elija Wald’s new book about Robert Johnson and the blues culture of the thirties and forties. It’s been pretty popular at my library, which is a good sign. The book offers some pretty intriguing commentary about Johnson’s role in the blues world, particularly about misconceptions on the part of white blues scholars about the world and the era within which Johnson lived.
The popular view of Robert Johnson and the music he has made is one of the tragic forlorn figure who has sold his soul to the devil to become the great musician that he was. To Wald’s credit, he completely ignores the sold soul myth and instead focuses on re-creating the world with which Johnson performed. Wald believes that Johnson was only popular regionally, and that the most popular blues artists of the era were smoother more accessible musicians like Leroy Carr. He backs this up with solid research into the culture of the Mississippi delta area during the short period that Johnson was a recording artist.
Wald devotes the middle portion of his book to taking a track-by-track look at the music Johnson recorded. He uses this to explain how Johnson’s music was not the epic poetry of a lone genius, but the music of a man very much of his time and affected by other musicians like Carr and Kokomo Arnold.
This myth-debunking revisionist history isn’t for the romantic blues fan, but for people who are interested in solid scholarship and research into one of the most important and misunderstood figures in American music, it’s a must-read.
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