Blues History | Robert Johnson & Escaping the Delta

Escaping the Delta by Elijah Wald

Escaping the Delta by Elijah Wald

I’d really like to meet the guy who wrote ‘Escaping the Delta’. His name is Elijah Wald (which is a great name for an author of a book about blues).

Elijah must have waded through a lot of original material to be able to write with such authority. He’s not afraid to share his opinion either. I’d love to buy him a beer sometime.

A couple of people recommended this book to me but I hadn’t got around to buying it.

I was so happy when I received it as a Christmas gift from a friend who knows me well enough to think I would enjoy it. He was right.

HISTORY THROUGH ‘HIS’ STORY

My favourite way of learning about history has always been through real life stories (though biopics come a close second). This book seems to be about the life of Robert Johnson but it’s nothing like other biographies I’ve read. Through reading it I’ve learned about his life and music, for sure. But more than that, I’ve been on a journey through a hundred years of blues.

WHAT IS BLUES?

As a DJ I often find myself in a discussion about what ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’ blues, so something I liked about the book right from the start was that it was a little controversial. This made me laugh out loud:

‘Blues has always been, first and foremost, a marketing term.’

Most of us know the simplest definition of blues is the one used by musicians when they say, ‘Let’s play a blues.’ (This is a sequence of chords, commonly known as the twelve-bar blues.)

The advantage of this definition is that it is very simple, and easy enough to recognise when we hear it. The disadvantage is that there is a lot of music that is generally considered to be blues but does not fit that framework. Often, what makes music ‘feel’ like blues is created by ‘blue notes’ that are played within it.

The truth is: blues can be found in many styles of music. Folk, country, jazz, rock, funk, gospel and soul can all feel like blues.

‘It cannot be said too often that musical categories are artificial constructs, useful for many purposes but meaningless and limiting for others. Simply because blues has been separated into all sorts of subcategories … does not mean that these categories meant much to the players or consumers of the music, or even existed at the time the music was being made.’

THE RECORDS OF ROBERT JOHNSON

Central to ‘Escaping the Delta’ is Wald’s incredibly detailed and scholarly analysis of Robert Johnson’s entire music recordings. Every single song is examined and compared to his previous work and the work of other musicians of the time.

Reading the analysis we can learn how Robert Johnson, like most of his contemporaries, changed and adapted his repertoire of songs not only to reflect current music trends and other musicians who inspired him, but also to suit the demands of the record producers and ultimately the record-buying public.

The impact that the record industry had on the development of blues music was huge. This is obvious when you stop and think about it, but I really hadn’t thought about it too much before reading this book.

BLUES AS ‘POP’ MUSIC

Record companies have always been interested, first and foremost, in sales. They recorded and sold whatever was popular. Until the 1960s at least, most blues music was ‘popular’ black music. Record sales, in turn, were influenced by the radio and the jukebox.

Right at the end of the book is a wonderful appendix: ‘Records on jukeboxes in African-American amusement places in Clarksdale, Mississippi c.1941, as noted by the Fisk University – Library of Congress team.’

It lists songs that show the diversity of popular music and dance styles of the time, and encompasses a wide range of artists, including: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Memphis Slim, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Boy Williamson, Count Basie, Louis Jordan, Billie Holiday, The Ink Spots, and Blind Boy Fuller. The musical styles would therefore have included: gospel, jump blues, jazz, Chicago, big band, Piedmont, and early rhythm and blues.

It occurs to me that if we had records from ten years later the jukebox song list would no doubt have included more electric blues, rhythm and blues and doo wop. In another ten years, soul would have been added. A decade more, and there would also have been funk.

The book concludes with this thought:

‘The world changes, and music changes with it, and some things are lost and others are gained, and the past may repeat itself, but always in new ways.’

So true.

POST SCRIPT

There is much more in this book than I’ve described here. I’m simply shining a light on one part that spoke to me as I was reading it. As a DJ I play all types of music, but am told that I’m known for the gospel, soul, and funk that I play along with more traditional jazz and blues. I’ve always selected my music by instinct. This book helped me to understand why.

If you are interested in learning more about blues music or history, I’d recommend ‘Escaping the Delta’ as a great place to start. (And if you’ve read it, I’d love to chat with you about it – maybe over a beer sometime?)