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Tangled Up In Blues

The blues as we know it ain't the blues as it was. Author Elijah Wald maps out a different route from Robert Johnson's crossroads.

Everything we think we know about the blues is wrong.

Well, not wrong so much as misguided, says Elijah Wald. Wald, a somewhat nomadic author and musician currently calling the North Side home, understands the enduring myth of blues iconography: Robert Johnson standing at the crossroads, selling his soul to the devil; the great forgotten avant-garde guitarist, his lonesome folk moan betrayed by the slick, glossy advent of pop radio and recordings. Wald just thinks that some attention ought to be paid to the facts of the matter, as well as the legend.

In his new book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, Elijah Wald argues that Johnson's place in music history -- the rawest and greatest "King of the Delta Blues," the unique epitome of a great folk art -- was largely a bit of revisionist history, written by white record collectors and guitar geeks in the 1960s. Johnson's influence and impact wasn't just limited, but nearly nonexistent, in the vibrant pop-music world of pre-war blues. People like Kokomo Arnold, Peetie Wheatstraw, Leroy Carr -- many names far more popular then, and far less well-known today, than Johnson himself -- provided the musical traits that Johnson would assimilate into his own sound. Romantic legend didn't hurt either: Johnson's obscure records were all culled from two brief recording sessions, his career cut short before it really got started, the philandering guitarist poisoned to death over a woman.

This is not Wald's first foray into blues, or into pop. Formerly a world music writer for the Boston Globe, Wald has written extensively on blues (Josh White: Society Blues) and other American roots music (he won a Grammy for his liner notes to the Arhoolie Records box set), and more recently on Mexican drug-smuggler ballads (Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas). Wald's father, George Wald, was both a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist and a vehement opponent of the Vietnam War whose speech, "A Generation in Search of a Future," was required reading for the late-'60s counterculture.

Elijah Wald for years made his living as a professional musician, and it was in that capacity that he first encountered the irony of Robert Johnson: When performing at a 1991 ceremony in the Mississippi Delta dedicating a marker at Johnson's gravesite, Wald was surprised to discover that the church's pastor had never heard of Robert Johnson before the discussions over the marker began. Wald began asking around, and found that almost no one in Mississippi had heard of the man many would consider the Delta's most famous musical export. Escaping the Delta -- and the accompanying CD, Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson -- are his attempt to explain the dichotomy between what existed as blues then, and what we think of as blues now.

Does this history detract from Robert Johnson's greatness?
It in no way detracts from his greatness. I hope it detracts from the perception of his uniqueness. He was truly great, but there's an awful lot of context in which he should be heard. And I think his greatness has constantly been mis-described. His greatness is not that he is the rawest, not the most this or the most that. I compare him to Ray Charles: There is no one thing that Robert Johnson or Ray Charles has done better than anyone else; it's the way they put it all together. And when you hear someone describe [Johnson] as the "greatest slide guitarist ever," that's just not true -- it's just demonstrably wrong. [I'm debunking] any of those sorts of things, that one is tempted to say when one is turning someone into a god.

Then there's a list of great musicians who influenced Johnson that I've likely never heard of?
[For example] Kokomo Arnold -- the first time I really heard Kokomo Arnold, really to listen to him seriously, was doing this project. And it flipped me out, because I've been in a world where I thought we were not listening to these guys because we were guitar nerds, and going into heavy-duty guitarists, and then you hear Kokomo Arnold, who is simply the most spectacular slide guitarist who ever recorded. Why he never was pushed -- the only answer I can come up with is that there were too many "stamp collectors" record collecting, and those [big-selling, popular] records were just too common.

Nowadays, Robert Johnson has become the opposite of that obscurity -- he's the one name that we all know.
A large part of my target audience for this book is all those people -- and we know lots of them -- who, the only pre-war blues they have is Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. That's become quite common -- they're right next to the people who the only Cuban music they have is the Buena Vista Social Club. And part of the idea of this book is, if this is all you have, here's what it is, here's what you've got. [That's why I also] wanted to put together one CD that, if that's all you have, here's something you can have next to that that is the next step.

Is it possible to see Johnson as one of the first "modern" artists because he learned largely from recordings and radio, rather than directly from musicians?
In that sense, absolutely, he absolutely can be seen that way. We can look at him as part of a generation that was a chronological turning point -- I think that he represents that generation. But one of the things that I think is hardest for people to assimilate is that his generation is the generation of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters -- in fact, Howlin' Wolf is older than Robert Johnson, not younger. This idea that Johnson is one of the players of the '30s and that they're players of the '50s is simply a chronological mistake. He's the generation of T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, all those guys.

The accident is that he got to record younger than they got to, and the accident is that he died, and is therefore stuck in an earlier period of history.

If it hadn't been Robert Johnson made into this king of the folk-blues mythology, would it have been someone else?
Oh, sure. In fact, it was someone else -- in a sense, Leadbelly was sold in a very similar way. Leadbelly was sold as a murderer from the South. And today, the [Mississippi blues label] Fat Possum artists are sold in a similar way: I was just talking to someone who described [Fat Possum artist] T-Model Ford as "the real thing." I asked "What do you mean?" and he said, "Well, he killed a man when he was 18."

The idea that that's what makes a real blues singer -- I mean, it's not hard, in this country, to find someone [who fits that description]. They're perfectly good musicians, and if it helps them sell their records, god bless 'em. We grew up on a lot of that: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, had they never been busted for dope, would we like them as much? It's show biz -- I just think it's important to remember that it's show biz. T-Model Ford's knifing is every bit as relevant to his music as Christina Aguilera's belly button: They're both effective marketing devices, but entirely irrelevant to how good they are as musicians.

Was Robert Johnson an early favorite of yours?
No, not really, because I got into [old blues] the old-fashioned way. I was the last of the generation before me, because, by pure chance, I ended up with a little record player that my parents wouldn't let me play their LPs on, but I could play all of their, and my grandparents', and their friends' 78s on. So I grew up with the standard folk-fan 78 albums of the '40s -- Josh White, Woody Guthrie, Almanac Singers [featuring Pete Seeger]. So I started exactly where people like [blues and folk musician and writer] Dave Van Ronk, my mentor, started -- that's why we got along so well!

So my first blues was Josh White. Then Skip James and Lightning Hopkins, Blind Willie McTell, Reverend Gary Davis. And for me, at that point, the hard Delta stuff [such as Johnson]: I thought it was brilliant, but I didn't listen to it that much. Like the way I feel these days about [free-jazz pioneer] Ornette Coleman: I love his stuff but the mood where I want to put on a record that's that intense is rarer than the mood in which I'd want to put on Thelonious Monk.

It's funny, because my idea of Robert Johnson was Robert Johnson sounding most like Son House. It was "Walking Blues," "Preaching Blues," and "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day." No one had put together a record of what, for want of a better term, I'd call the "mellow" Robert Johnson. You could put together a record of Robert Johnson that would be, I'm not going to say easy listening, but maybe easier listening -- I mean stuff like "From Four Till Late." I would've always found that as easy to listen to as McTell or Josh White, I just wasn't hearing that, because that wasn't the quotation-marks "great" Robert Johnson.

How do you personally approach the difference between the folk-blues myth and what you know to be the bigger picture of pre-war blues?
I definitely grew up with most of the myths that I consider the myths of the white folk-blues [fans]. To a large extent, they still shape my tastes -- I'm not outside of that. But an awful lot of what shapes my view is that I am a musician, and a professional. I made my living at this for a long time, and I understand the difference between what you like to play and what you get paid to play. And the difference between what you do and what people perceive you to do.

I've sent audition tapes that have [me performing] Woody Guthrie songs, a song by Bill Morrissey, a Lemon Jefferson and a [Mississippi] John Hurt, to a festival, and gotten a letter back that says, "I'm sorry, we already have a blues act." [Cambridge folk-scene legend] Dave Van Ronk lived his whole life that way: He did a record of a Brecht, a record of swing, he was the first person to do Joni Mitchell, yet it was always "Dave Van Ronk, blues singer."

And so, I came to this very much with that consciousness: the difference between how a professional musician views what they're doing, and how their audience may regard it.

Being a musician who's played these small sweaty Southern clubs must have influenced your understanding of that atmosphere as well.
I think it's always misleading to think you've got a time machine. I saw that to the extreme in Zaire, where you'd go to a town that involved an hour-and-a-half [hike] down a dirt path because there was no road. And you'd be there a couple of days before someone would mention that in the old days they had electricity, and people used to drive in -- on a road -- from the city, because [this town] had nightclubs that didn't have closing times.

And there's this town full of people hunting with spears, all of whom grew up in a time when it was the nightclub center for the nearby city! So, "Oh, of course they know all the pop hits from the '50s! They were the dance hall in the '50s and '60s!"

There's a tendency to walk into a place where everybody's riding on horseback and think, "Ahh, they're living like -- they are our past." And they're not our past; they're their present. They've had just as much history in the past 200 years as we have.

I think one has to constantly be aware that when you go into a juke joint in Mississippi, you are that much closer to Mississippi, but you are no closer to 1930.

You illustrate that blues was primarily bought, and recorded, by women. Yet it's certainly become canonized as "man's music."
I don't know exactly how that happened. But it certainly had a lot to do with the fact that all the white -- for lack of a better term -- nerds who were reviving [blues] were male, and a lot of them not getting dates. I think it was the idea that blues was the roots of rock, and particularly the roots of guitar-hero rock. There was definitely an appeal to that masculinity, because the previous generation [of white fans] had been into Bessie Smith -- and the gay critics continued to be into Bessie Smith -- and it was really the '50s and '60s generation that went the other way.

The "blues man" iconography has certainly shaped the history of women in blues.
It's completely impacted that in terms of guitar-hero iconography. The whole idea that what's great about blues are the guitar and harmonica players, rather than the singers, is by definition going to give you very few women in the pantheon. Because very few women played -- mostly because they could hire bands to do that for them!

The way people talk about Robert Johnson now is as a guitar player first, singer second. In his day, that wouldn't have been true. Even when [music promoter] John Hammond talked about bringing Johnson to Carnegie Hall [for Hammond's historic "From Spirituals to Swing" concert], he was talking about his singing. Hammond liked the sound of the slide guitar, I'm sure, but he talked about the singing.

I should say that, in black popular music, the women were always, always in the front -- that never changed. In the late '30s, early '40s, the most popular blues singer in America, I suspect, was Dinah Washington. Yet she normally doesn't even make it into blues histories.

Blues, you reveal, was essentially pop music, and much of what we've come to think of as "folk" blues was in fact the result of a pop-music process of trend. Were those audiences looking for something progressive, something radical?
The pop audience always wants something familiar, and always wants to feel like they're on the cutting edge. If you're too new, you don't hit, and if you're not perceived as being new, you don't hit. So it's that balancing act, between being familiar enough and feeling like the new thing.

One of my points is that this was pop music, and there's nothing wrong with that -- there's nothing wrong with pop music. The pop audience is at least as discerning, and often more. Certainly more discerning than the scholarly audience -- the scholarly audience has always been willing to be bored. And the pop audience isn't.

It seems like your argument goes against a lot of the general perception of "the blues." Do you expect any kind of backlash?
I don't think there's going to be a lot of backlash. If you read any good blues history, you can read it and get all the myths that you may feel like I'm clearing away. But there will always be those sentences that say, "the most popular artists of the day -- Peetie Wheatstraw, so and so, so and so," and then will go back. No one really disagrees -- it's a question of emphasis. That one should start off emphasizing the people who might be most exciting to one's potential audience, I think was perfectly reasonable. What's crazy is that, 45 years on, that essentially hasn't changed. It has changed in some key ways -- in the early days, [an act as polished as] B.B. King would've been dismissed as "not a real blues artist." He was routinely dismissed. Charles Brown only got into the blues pantheon around the late '80s, when he went on tour with Bonnie Raitt. Suddenly he's in all the blues histories.

This, then, is a history that's always been known, just not always discussed at length?
I'm not trying to say that I've got nothing new to say, it's just not as controversial as it is perceived by people who are not in the field. Within the field, I think there's less controversy about what I'm trying to say than in the popular culture, to which this is a completely new idea. But I think [the] reaction, "Oh, yeah, that makes sense" -- I hope that's going to be a very common one.

I'm not in disagreement with most blues critics. This is not "Peter Guralnick is wrong, I'm right" -- Peter agrees completely. Most people who actually know the history, this is not a very controversial position -- it's just one that has not been put for the general public.

Would you like this history to rediscover the place of some of those names -- like Leroy Carr, Kokomo Arnold -- that heavily influenced Johnson and the like, but have been somewhat forgotten by the mainstream of blues?
Absolutely. I don't think everybody needs to hear Leroy Carr, but I am in fact currently working on putting together a Leroy Carr album [for Yazoo Records], to kind of make the case that, whatever you may say about this man, he was not limited or boring. You could make a very varied Leroy Carr album.

For example, Peetie Wheatstraw. The guy who put [Escaping the Delta's companion CD] together is one of the great authorities on this music; he runs Yazoo Records. He called me up halfway through this project and said, "Oh my god. I can't believe how stupid I've been all these years -- I just dismissed Peetie Wheatstraw, and he sounds so great!" I think anyone whose favorite blues singer is Robert Johnson and they've never heard Peetie Wheatstraw, they've really missed something. And there's more of those people out there -- if I talk about Johnson and who he learned from, they'll say, "Oh, yes, Charley Patton." I say, "No, Peetie Wheatstraw." And they'll say, no, he was boring -- but if you really like Robert Johnson's singing, you'll like Peetie Wheatstraw, because that's where it came from!

But you know there's a bigger point I'm trying to make. And that's that it's not about categories; it's about music. There's this weird "who is blues, who isn't, what is blues, what isn't" question. And the point I make is, we're not talking about music [in that kind of discussion], we're talking about marketing concepts, and they are not aids to hearing music -- in fact, they get in the way of hearing music.

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