Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald

This is my review of Escaping the Delta by Elijah Wald.

The book
This is a non-fiction look at blues music in the United States. It’s a look at the myth of blues, and the mystification of Robert Johnson. Wald is an amateur musician, blues lover, writer and teacher. He writes about the beginning of Blues in the Mississippi delta and how it moved north, and how it became popular music. He writes about important blues musicians, and about Robert Johnson who has been made into the start of blues, and who has been made into this mystical person who sold his soul to the devil.

I really like blues. I love the guitars and the howling and the things. I also really like Robert Johnson, because there is the legend of him selling his soul to the devil, and I find it fascinating. I obviously know he didn’t really sell his soul to the devil, but it’s an interesting story.

So Wald basically deconstructs the myth of blues. It’s a very myth-filled genre. It’s in many ways seen as the music of pain and suffering, and while that’s certainly true to an extent, blues music was also popular music. It was basically pop music, and everyone listened to it. And since it was written and performed first in the early 20th century it was about things that people thought about and knew about, so they wrote about cotton picking and Jim Crow laws, because that’s what people thought about. This isn’t a criticism by the way, I think blues probably has a lot of meaning to people who have lived with oppression, but according to Wald, when it was made it wasn’t really protest music. It wrote about what people knew and it became popular. A lot of people listened to it, and a lot of people went to see it played. According to Wald the mysticism has in many ways been made by nostalgic white fans later.

I found the deconstruction of Robert Johnson really fascinating. The legend is Johnson was sort of “meh” as a guitar player, went away, and came back as a guitar genius. The theory was he sold his soul for his skills. The truth is that Johnson was incredibly dedicated and hard working. He practiced, he worked hard and he became a good player. He probably had some inborn talent, but he worked hard to hone his skills. Some people say that he wrote about the hell hound and the devil because of the whole selling-his-soul-business, but the truth seems to be that the mythology of the devil, and the theme of being chased was sort of in the zeitgeist, and it was popular, so he basically made popular music.

It’s easy to understand how he became mythical, he was handsome, young, he dressed well, and he seemed to suddenly become a guitar genius, and because he died sort of mysteriously. He might have been killed, he might have drunk himself to death, he might have had pneumonia, but he died somewhere where people had no idea who he was, so no one really recorded it for posterity. Which isn’t as dodgy as it sounds, but it makes his legend bigger.

I really like deconstructing things I like. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s a weird thing about me. So I really liked deconstructing blues. Because it is so full of myth and demons and stuff, and it was interesting to see someone writing from such a sober perspective. And it was interesting to see the history of blues, where it came from. And it was cool to see that these people were just very hard-working, they didn’t sell their souls, they just worked hard. And there’s this fascinating thing he describes, where he plays his students a bunch of blues, and then Robert Johnson. And they’re all really excited. And then they’re like, what the hell? Because they have so many expectations, and he was just… a blues singer like many other.

I liked it, it was fun. It was fascinating. It meant I listened to a bunch of blues, which was fun. I really liked it.