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 pores over the tiny ads in the back of Goldmine 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.

In Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2004), Elijah Wald seems like he's out to take the stuffy blues purists down a notch or two with a fresh look at the received history of the blues. But despite his impressive scholarship and obvious love of the material, Wald 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 Alan Lomax and other white field recordists, blues was thriving, diverse popular music. Wald also expands on the recent welcome trend of knocking down the 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.

Wald uses artists' recording histories as a guide to their popularity and influence. This approach reflects the extent to which records were a transmission belt for popular culture as far back as the 1920s and '30s. (It also reminds us that fads are nothing new, as the spate of "Black Snake" songs -- "That Black Snake Moan," "New Black Snake Blues," "That Black Snake Moan Number 2" -- attests.) Wald 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, Wald notes, were inaccurately branded Negro bumpkins. Sources as mainstream as Life spread this notion with such pieces as a Leadbelly feature titled "Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel."

But Wald's reliance on record sales soon leads him to equate cutting records with musical influence and standing. This is where the guitarist Robert Johnson comes in. Johnson never sold much of anything while he was alive, so Wald concludes Johnson does not matter as much as blues fans suppose. "As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure," he claims, "and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note."

That seems an awfully strong statement, one which requires a level of knowledge that Wald simply cannot have. Worse, it calls into question the words of such unimpeachable bluesmen as Muddy Waters and Son House, who in many interviews put Johnson in the hall of players who influenced them and had a distinct sound, if not a wide popular following.

Wald questions such testimony. "In assessing Johnson's local reputation," he cautions, "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."

No, one does not. It does not seem to occur to Wald that the bluesmen might have actually liked Johnson's music.

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

Wald seems to resent this hijacking of his orderly narrative in which the blues exists
on its 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, popping up in unexpected places and unexpected forms. When Clapton's future Cream cohort Ginger Baker was playing Robert Johnson tunes with British blues revivalist Alexis Korner in the 1960s, who could have guessed that one day he'd be jamming with über-punk Johnny Rotten's '80s band Public Image Ltd.?

That sort of shock is the norm when music hits a universal nerve. Almost a century of popular music gets condensed into three minutes here, two minutes there. Marginally popular artists suddenly hold great sway. It happens all the time.

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