Escaping the Delta – By Elijah Wald

Very eye-opening look at Robert Johnson and why he has become, wrongly so as Elijah surmises, known as the “King of the Delta Blues.” The book is based on a tremendous amount of research into the music scene at the turn of the century and its main theme is that there was a whole world of blues and blues man playing their ditties, hitting the roads, selling their souls, long before Robert came around. In fact, the book takes such great pains to show the music and musicians that influenced Robert, and does so in such a convincing way, that you begin to consider Robert a two-bit hack.

The book comes with a fantastic CD called “The Roots of Robert Johnston” which contain some thirty songs by blues man like Skip James, Leroy Carr (the real “King of the Blues”), Kokomo Arnold, Bumble Bee Slim, Peetie Wheatstraw, Sonny Boy Williamson and more that all were out there doing their things before or at the time Robert was traveling the riverside doing his. Elijah stresses that it was these musicians and more that shaped Robert and his style, but he also points out that only a person like Robert would have been able to be shaped by it.

Robert was a prodigy of sorts. He had such a tremendous ear that he could hear a few notes of a song and pick it up instantly and improvise on the spot. This unique ability and his undoubted talent and dexterity with the guitar allowed him to be a true conduit for all he saw and heard. And the finishing touch to Mr. Johnson was utter desire to be famous. Unlike his contemporaries who were just happy playing their tunes, Robert craved more. He wanted fame and riches and popularity. He was, as Elijah suggests, the worlds first pop star. He was always looking for the big break, that opportunity to play and be seen. He was always dressed in fine, pressed suits, carried himself with dignity, and made his chances happen.

And not because he sold his soul to the devil. Elijah drives home the fact repeatedly that although Robert Johnson was a truly talented musician, he was, for the most part, a product of his time and a creation of the marketing hype that regenerated blues music in the 1970’s. He was not a creation of the Dark Lord like Jimmy Page is. Not many of Robert’s contemporaries were recorded, certainly less of those who came before were recorded, so Robert became the easy starting point in defining the blues, especially the Delta Blues.

Elijah spent a lot of time showing the research he did; detailing each of his recorded songs and each alternative take (only two discs worth!) and he even provides a fascinating list of the songs that were on the jukeboxes in many of the taverns he may have frequented. All good stuff, but ultimately the book is very dry and very quickly I found myself saying “Enough already, I get the point.”

My advise, skip the book and listen to the CD.

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