Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

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Harper Collins, Jan 6, 2004 - Biography & Autobiography - 368 pages

Robert Johnson's story presents a fascinating paradox: Why did this genius of the Delta blues excite so little interest when his records were first released in the 1930s? And how did this brilliant but obscure musician come to be hailed long after his death as the most important artist in early blues and a founding father of rock 'n' roll?

Elijah Wald provides the first thorough examination of Johnson's work and makes it the centerpiece for a fresh look at the entire history of the blues. He traces the music's rural folk roots but focuses on its evolution as a hot, hip African-American pop style, placing the great blues stars in their proper place as innovative popular artists during one of the most exciting periods in American music. He then goes on to explore how the image of the blues was reshaped by a world of generally white fans, with very different standards and dreams.

The result is a view of the blues from the inside, based not only on recordings but also on the recollections of the musicians themselves, the African-American press, and original research. Wald presents previously unpublished studies of what people on Delta plantations were actually listening to during the blues era, showing the larger world in which Johnson's music was conceived. What emerges is a new respect and appreciation for the creators of what many consider to be America's deepest and most influential music.

Wald also discusses how later fans formed a new view of the blues as haunting Delta folklore. While trying to separate fantasy from reality, he accepts that neither the simple history nor the romantic legend is the whole story. Each has its own fascinating history, and it is these twin histories that inform this book.


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User Review  - espadana - LibraryThing

A history of blues anchored on the short life of the iconic Robert Johnson. A very interesting and lucid view on the blues, trying to dispel the myths and focus on what blues really meant to the ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - nmele - LibraryThing

This history of the blues places Robert Johnson in the context of his time and the music of his time and place. Therefore, it corrects the widely held impression that Johnson in particular and the ... Read full review



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Page 3 - I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw.
Page 72 - Sure, she said, as Pablo once remarked, when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don't have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it.
Page 31 - ... fore twelve o'clock that night so you'll know you'll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece sitting there by yourself. You have to go by yourself and be sitting there playing a piece. A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's the way I learned how to play anything I want.
Page 8 - A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. Coin' where the Southern cross
Page 19 - I said he had a talking guitar, and many a person agreed with me. This sound affected most women in a way that I could never understand. One time in St. Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a great while, Come On In My Kitchen.
Page 31 - He said the reason he knowed so much, said he sold hisself to the devil. I asked him how. He said, 'If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little 'fore twelve o'clock that night so you'll know you'll be there.
Page 24 - Victrola of long ago. This stood on the other side of the stage. A girl would come out and put a big record on it. Then the band picked up the Moonshine Blues. Ma would sing a few bars inside the Victrola. Then she would open the door and step out into the spotlight with her glittering gown that weighed twenty pounds and wearing a necklace of five, ten and twenty dollar gold-pieces. The house went wild. It was as if the show had started all over again. Ma had the audience in the palm of her hand....
Page 51 - Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc., there has been developed at most installations in the past year many soldier quartet and choral groups.
Page 11 - Rainey became so interested that she learned the song from the visitor, and used it soon afterwards in her "act" as an encore. The song elicited such response from the audience that it won a special place in her act.

About the author (2004)

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.

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