Messing With the Blues

Revisionism comes to the Delta


Every casual blues fan has met a hard case, the guy—it is always a guy—who pours over the tiny ads in the back of Goldmine magazine in search of "real" blues recordings. He is the keeper of esoteric sideman knowledge, the arbiter of notes bent and pre-bent, and sadly in need of being told to give it a rest.

Author Elijah Wald seems to set out to take the stuffy blues purists down a notch or two with a fresh look about the received history of the blues. But despite some prolific scholarship and obvious love of the material, Wald's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues winds up substituting his own prejudices for the old ones, which is not quite the improvement it could be.

Wald's central theme is that far from being an obscure folk tradition rescued by the likes of Alan Lomax and John Hammond, blues was thriving, diverse popular music. Wald also expands on the recent welcome trend of knocking down the perceived, received walls between different styles of music, revealing that musicians black and white, country and urban freely stole from one another for decades, to everyone's benefit.

At a time when Aerosmith's long-threatened blues album, Honkin' On Bobo (a title more Spinal Tap than anything in the Spinal Tap catalog) looms and PBS has Martin Scorsese's leaden The Blues in heavy rotation—see Clint Eastwood and Ray Charles sit at a piano!—contrarian impulses such as Wald's are sorely needed.

Wald uses the actual recording history of artists as a guide to their popularity and influence. This approach recovers the extent to which records were a transmission belt for popular culture as for back as the 1920s and 1930s and reminds us that fads are nothing new, as the spate of "Black Snake" records attests.

Wald also tries to throttle the misconception that black artists were God-gifted but wild natives rather than practiced musicians with wide influences, experiences, and audiences. Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy in particular were stuck with a fictional Negro bumpkin label, Wald notes. Sources as mainstream as Life magazine spread this notion far and wide with such pieces a Leadbelly feature titled "Bad Nigger Makes a Good Minstrel." (Presumably the editors at Life didn't think of "Honkin' On Bobo" first.)

But Wald's reliance on record sales soon leads him to equate cutting records with actual musical influence and standing. This is where guitar bluesman Robert Johnson comes in. As Johnson never sold much of anything while he was alive, Wald concludes Johnson does not matter as much as blues fans might suppose he does.

"As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note," Wald claims.

But that seems an awfully strong statement, one which requires a level of knowledge that Wald, or any observer, simply cannot have. Worse, even the words of unimpeachable bluesmen Muddy Waters and Son House have to be called into question to fit Wald's thesis.

In many interviews House and Waters put Johnson in the hall of players who influenced them and had a distinct sound if not a wide popular following. This sounds curious to Wald.

"In assessing Johnson's local reputation, it is worth noting that the first white, northern blues fan that House, Waters, Honeyboy Edwards, and other Delta players met was already an ardent Johnson admirer. One has to wonder what effect this had on their own estimation of their onetime peer," Wald cautions.

No, one does not. It does not seem to occur to Wald that the bluesmen might have actually liked Johnson's music. And while champions like Lomax and Hammond surely amplified the Johnson legend and mainlined it into white audiences, the legend's signature feature is wholly Johnson's: the man did die young. Dying young always helps your back catalog; just ask Marc Bolan, Sid Vicious, Mama Cass

Perhaps it is nothing more than an historical accident that Johnson's music came to light in 1961 just as young British kids tired of skiffle and looked to America for the latest new, old thing. And it makes sense that Eric Clapton tries to ground a 10-minute guitar wank-fest in the blues tradition by tying them to the primal Johnson myth of a devil's bargain and a desolate crossroad.

Wald seems to resent this hijacking of his orderly narrative where the blues exist on their own terms, independent of marketing stratagems, record store bins, or the embrace of ardent but confused popularizers and disciples.

But culture, especially musical culture, doesn't flow like gelatin into predictable molds. It bubbles and gurgles along, and pops up in the most unexpected places in unexpected forms, much like blues-revivalist Ginger Baker popping up behind über-punk Johnny Lydon in his Public Image Ltd. days. Who could've predicted that back when Baker was playing Robert Johnson tunes with Alexis Korner?

And that shock is the norm when music hits a universal nerve. Almost a century of popular music condensed into three minutes here, two minutes there. Marginally popular artists suddenly holding great sway. So?

The blues doesn't need Wald's kind of revision. Just the occasional revival.