Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
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The life of blues legend Robert Johnson becomes the centerpiece for this innovative look at what many consider to be America's deepest and most influential music genre. Pivotal are the questions surrounding why Johnson was ignored by the core black audience of his time yet now celebrated as the greatest figure in blues history.
Trying to separate myth from reality, biographer Elijah Wald studies the blues from the inside -- not only examining recordings but also the recollections of the musicians themselves, the African-American press, as well as examining original research. What emerges is a new appreciation for the blues and the movement of its artists from the shadows of the 1930s Mississippi Delta to the mainstream venues frequented by today's loyal blues fans.
think, a stone don’t move, and you can’t ride it” (House, interviewed by Fahey et al.). 10 Second Sessions: The Professional 1. David “Honeyboy” Edwards, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1997), pp. 99–100. In interviews, Edwards has placed his first meeting with Johnson in Jackson, in Itta Bena, and in the northern Delta. Each time, he was quite precise about the street and circumstances. I have no reason to doubt that Edwards met Johnson, but he is an old hand at
(survey of black rural folk music), 231 “Negro spiritual” ensembles, 223 Nelson, Romeo, 237 Nelson, Sonny Boy. See Powell, Eugene neo-ethnic movement, 240 Newbern, Hambone Willie, 164 Newbern, Willie, 126 New Orleans, 12–13, 29, 33, 157 New Orleans jazz hoodoo and, 268–69 jazz purists (“moldy figs”) and, 193–94, 237 New Orleans Joys (album), 238 Newport Folk Festival, 254–55 Wolf at, 214–15 New York Times, 272 Noone, Jimmy, 62 North Carolina, 83 O Brother, Where Art Thou? (movie),
recording center must have been a key factor in his getting the opportunity to make records.29 Jackson’s main strength may well have been his crossover appeal. While he sang blues from his first records on, his most enduring number was “Salty Dog Blues,” a comic ragtime piece that sold not only to blues fans, but also to lovers of minstrel novelties. The song would become a standard in the white country and bluegrass repertoire, and if our usual views of music history were not so deeply colored
routinely used for any dance that struck respectable people as wild and unrestrained, whether Irish or African). Our view of this music has been forever slanted by the vagaries of the record scouts who arrived in the 1920s and, having learned that such pieces sold much better to white customers than black, discouraged black musicians from playing them. This is why all but a tiny sample of the rural fiddle music recorded during this period and afterward comes from white players. Up through the
could.” Johnson’s fourth verse seems modeled on one of Carr’s, and the high guitar part he plays under the second verse is very similar to what Scrapper Blackwell played on the earlier record.2 That said, Johnson’s song is the most musically complex in the cycle, and immediately gives some insight into what set him apart from the competition. First of all, it was relatively rare for rurally based singers to carefully compose a whole blues lyric. At country jukes, the dancers made so much noise