While I’m waiting for my copy of Michael Gray’s newly published biography of Blind Willie McTell, I’m gearing up by reading Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, a refreshingly contrarian take on the music from a man who is both an accomplished musician and an excellent writer.
In a nutshell, Wald’s argument is that the picture of blues as a woe-laden spiritual upwelling from the back roads of the Mississippi Delta obscures the fact that blues was the black popular music of its day, and hugely overestimates the importance of figures like Robert Johnson who are revered (generally by white rock fans and musicians) as the greatest bluesmen of all time.
I haven’t finished the book, and I may close the cover with a few points to dispute. But it’s very bracing to read a book that dispenses with the voodoo bunk that infests so much writing about the blues: see Mystery Train by Greil Marcus and Martin Scorsese’s misbegotten PBS series for particularly overripe samples of what I mean. To Wald, Johnson is simply a working musician whose playing reflected his eager assimilation of contemporary pop music influences as well as his own indisputable talent.
Wald isn’t the first writer to point out some of this stuff: it’s no secret that when the folk music revivalists took up blues as an “authentic” counterpoint to pop and rock’n’roll, more than a few bluesmen who’d been flashy electric players in their heyday were happy to play the role of overall-clad rustic sage for their new white fans. Big Bill Broonzy spent much of the 1950s doing just that for U.K. audiences; when cancer made him too ill to tour, Broonzy recommended that Muddy Waters take his spot. Muddy arrived in England with his electric guitar and proceeded to shock British listeners with some full-volume Chicago blues. One reviewer scampered into the men’s room to hear the rest of the set through the muffling walls. For the generation that considered skiffle, trad and “Rock Island Line” the epitome of authenticity, Muddy’s electric style was an abomination, but for the kids who were coming up behind them, it was a revelation.
Wald is more than happy to acknowledge that the clouds of brimstone surrounding Robert Johnson’s legend were a big part of what drew him to the blues in the first place. As for myself, guilty as charged. Who can resist stories of midnight meetings at the crossroads? But it does obscure the fact that Johnson was a real artist trying to hone his skills and better himself in a dodgy business made all the more diffcult by racism and poverty. Anybody can sell his soul to the devil, but hardly anyone can make music so good that listeners think he did so. That’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.
There’s a famous line of movie dialogue — “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend” — from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence that I’ve always loathed, because the legend is hardly ever as interesting as the truth, and the people who keep printing the legend only make it harder to find the truth. Elijah Wald keeps the legend in its proper place, and so doing helps us get back in touch with the hard core of artistry that keeps people coming back to the blues, generation after generation.