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

ElijahIn 2019, streaming giant Netflix premiered “Devil at the Crossroads: A Robert Johnson Story“, in which focused is placed on the life of guitarist Robert Johnson (1911-1938).  In the years following his death, Johnson was elevate to near mythical status as a pioneer of blues music.  The documentary is captivating and received a positive rating by yours truly.  Filmmakers took a long look at Johnson’s life to clear up the mysteries that surround it to this day.  And while there is a significant amount of information regarding his life that is known, there remains an equal amount that is a question mark.  By all accounts, Johnson kept very few friends and was a loner in the classic sense.  However, he did record formally and his recordings stand as the only part of his life that has survived to this day.

Legendary guitarist Eric Clapton idolized Johnson and stated emphatically:  “ It came as something of a shock to me that there could be anything that powerful…. At first it was almost too painful, but then after about six months I started listening, and then I didn’t listen to anything else. Up until the time I was 25, if you didn’t know who Robert Johnson was I wouldn’t talk to you…. It was as if I had been prepared to receive Robert Johnson, almost like a religious experience that started out with hearing Chuck Berry, then at each stage went further and deeper until I was ready for him…. I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice”.  If only going by Clapton’s words, it would appear that Johnson was the end all and be all for blues music.  But one question that remains is what exactly was Johnson’s role in the development of blues?  Author Elijah Wood tackles this question a book that will surely change the way you view the concept of blues music.

I should point out that this is not a biography of Johnson in the traditional sense.  Wald does discuss Johnson’s life, but the main focus of the book is to examine the music of the  Mississippi Delta, which was home to some of the best musicians that performed the music that society has labeled blues.  And while Johnson does fit into the story,  he is part of a much larger picture composed of many artists, some of whom remain obscure to music fans today.   In some ways, the book is encyclopedic and provides thorough discussions of the lives of music greats of the era such as W.C. Handy (1873-1958), Son House (1902-1988) and Charley Patton (1891-1934).  Their trials, tribulations and contributions take center stage as Wald takes us back in time.

But what exactly is blues?  Did the musicians who played in the Delta consider their art to be blues?  The questions are pertinent and what Wald reveals to us here just might surprise some readers.  His work challenges long held beliefs about the definition of blues music.  And while he is not attempting to re-write music history, he does intend to get the reader to see the concept of blues in a light that is often unseen.

There can be no discussion about blues music and America without  addressing the issue of race.   In the 1920s and 1930s, Jim Crow was alive and strong.  Artist such as Johnson had to navigate their way through a country that afforded very little protection to people of color.  Lynchings and segregation were constant reminders of the ugly side of America and helped fuel the music that would later captivate the minds of fans both black and white.  However, to black and white Americans, what came to be known as blues looked very different depending on the person’s race and it is through both lenses that Johnson takes his place in the history of blues music.  Wald’s discussion of Johnson’s place in the lives of both black and white Americans is interesting and clarifying.  And I do believe that he provides a solid argument for Johnson’s place in the official narrative.

To be clear, Wald is a fan of Johnson and pays homage to his musical genius.  He is not attempting to discredit Johnson in any way but simply provide a historical narrative that is closest to the truth.  Johnson’s talents can never be denied and he is rightfully recognized as a pioneering singer in his field.  But as Wald explores, even during his time, Johnson was not nor would he ever be, the founding father of blues music. Instead, he was one of many who helped create the sound that stands in a league of its own.

Blues music has no equivalent and once you have heard it, its sound remains with you.   It is soul touching and extracts the rawest of human emotions.  Listeners may be tempted to conjure up images of smoke filled shacks, filled with hard liquor, unbearable heat and enough soul to fill an entire state. It is an image that we love to imagine but in truth, the real story is far more complex. Wald’s analysis here is just what the doctor ordered and I feel that the author accomplished his goals.  And understanding why musicians were escaping the Delta, is key to understanding the passion and emotion that gave way to the blues.  Highly recommended.