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Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
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Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

4.0 of 5 stars 4.00  ·  rating details  ·  621 ratings  ·  55 reviews
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, biograph
...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published December 14th 2004 by Amistad (first published 2004)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,677)
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Benjamin
This was painful. Like I need some hippy blues nerd to tell me that black people listen to all kinds of music and that white audiences bring their racist baggage to how they hear the music... All his points are valid, but they are so belabored. If you are after "truth" and "authenticity" then this dude is fighting the good fight in the culture wars. If you just dig the blues, and you know it's phony, then this is going to hurt. He should of just written a biography of Leroy Carr instead of gunni ...more
David Glenn Dixon
Washington City Paper
Arts & Entertainment : Book Review

Highway 61 Revisited
By Glenn Dixon • January 23, 2004

The blues was invented by white people: Although that’s the incendiary thesis behind Elijah Wald’s provocative new book, "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues," it’s unlikely to anger many African-Americans. Because Wald isn’t talking about the music per se; he’s challenging the way the nostalgic modern idea of the blues has been constructed by the liberal,
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Nelson
Excellent overview but not so much of Robert Johnson as the history of the Blues in America. The book is divided into three parts: the land where Johnson lived (Mississippi Delta), what we actually know of Robert Johnson's life and to what degree the blues was actually influenced by Johnson who Clapton said, "was the greatest blues man whoever lived".

A primary theme of the history is how blues is perceived by its two primary audiences. First, blues was originally a popular form of music played
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Bill
The premise of this book is blues history as we know it is all wrong. What we take for blues history is a string of musicians picked by a handful of English blues enthusiasts, notably the Rolling Stones and rolled into a the myth of the poor outsider. Real Blues history is far richer and diverse than what we think of when we think of the classical cannon of blues musicians today. Whether you buy into that or not (I do) the book is a must read for any one interested in today's popular music or in ...more
Chris
Jan 24, 2010 Chris rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Fans of Robert Johnson and Delta blues
Very thorough and well researched history of the blues. The author's primary aim is to separate myth from fact, specifically in regard to Delta blues and Robert Johnson. Mr Wald emphasizes the differences in perspective between black and white blues audiences and recounts the formation of the white blues revivalists' romanticized view of the Mississippi Delta blues. For me, it was a fascinating approach and after reading the book, I've come to question my view of the blues and what I perceive as ...more
Richard
I probably thought I knew the Blues. After all, I was born and raised in Mississippi, and have lived most of my life within 40 miles of HWY 61 and within spitting distance of the Delta. Turns out I didn't know squat, either about Robert Johnson or the Blues in general. This book by Elijah Wald was both a revelation and an education. If you're at all interested in the Blues and how it relates--and more importantly, perhaps-- how it DOESN'T relate to the early roots music of America, you need this ...more
Steve
Seeing colossal blues hero Robert Johnson on the cover of Elijah Wald's "Escaping the Delta" made me pause with doubt because what I certainly was not in the market for was another feverish bio of Robert Johnson that focused on the mystical to the exclusion of all else. Most pleasantly, this is definitely not the case with this interesting and readable work.

The book starts slowly as author Wald consumes nearly seventy pages with an exhaustive history of the pop music scene of the Delta region of
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Megan
So - for a book that I had to read for a class, it was pretty good. I didn't read this book from front cover to back cover, but it became an unbelievably wonderful resource when I had to write my papers. It was easy to read and understand and helped me wrap my head around the whole RJ/Delta Blues story in a way that my other class books couldn't.
Rodney
Outstanding revisionist history of the early blues. Fascinatingly informative throughout. Helps appreciate Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House, and other icons no less--but also see how Lonnie Johnson and others were much more popular in their day and time, and how the white cult of the blues created the images of early blues and blues musicians . . .
Darren
Nice analysis of early blues and our misperceptions of what the early blues musicians were listening to, what they were trying to be, and the target audiences' own account of the history of the blues being so different from the mythology mostly perpetuated by white blues fans 30/40 years after the fact.
Sim
Everything you know about the blues is wrong.

Simply a fascinating look into what we think is "blues" music and how marketing/advertising skews our thinking (or encourages the lack of it).

All music is marketing. :-)
Andrew
This book ended up being one of my most enjoyable reading experiences, though not in the typical sense. I'll get back to the good stuff later, but I'd first like to comment on what I didn't like.

The book was not terribly well written. Long stretches were repetitive which led to a confusing narrative. Yes, the thesis of the book is clear by the time you are finished. However, it is a meandering journey that seems to go in circles at times. A more concise narrative and a more clearly laid out thes
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Josh
This book is not-- as the cover and the subtitle might suggest-- a biography of Robert Johnson, though there is some of that here, comprising the middle of the book's three sections. More than anything, it is a reflection on the trappings and contradictions inherent to the concept of genre, and then a history of how blues music has evolved over the last 100 years or so; then and only then is it a look back at Johnson himself. There is a rewarding section that goes into detail about every song he ...more
Andrew
One of the clearest accounts of the roots and culture of the pre-war blues era in American musical history that I've ever read. Rather than focusing on the sorts of purist romantic myths that have built up around the subject, Wald does extensive research and documents the reality of life as a blues musician in the 20s and 30s, with a specific concentration on the legendary Robert Johnson--who, as Wald points out, was obscure and a poorly-selling artist during his time. Wald believes (with very g ...more
Jay B.  Larson
This book actually annoyed me. The author's premise is worthy enough - to demystify Delta Blues musicians by asserting that they were professional musicians just as in search of success as anyone else. However, the author's main agenda seems to be telling the reader OVER AND OVER that he's the only one who gets it, which he does with irritatingly faulty logic. He insists that all accounts of Johnson's life are subject to skepticism since nothing is verifiable. Then he insists that he KNOWS Johns ...more
Jamie Howison
I've begun to dig into some serious reading on the blues, in preparation to some related writing of my own. Wald's book was recommended to me by the musician and writer Adam Gussow, whose book "Seems Like Murder Here" was part of my research for my previous book.

This is good read, and in the end Wald's point is pretty basic: what most of us (and by "us" I mean people who have come to the blues by way of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and that host of mostly English rock musicians who "discov
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J
Sep 26, 2007 J rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: fans of Robert Johnson and blues music in general
Shelves: about-music
This is easily the best book on Robert Johnson I’ve ever read. Much like Jon Savage did with the Sex Pistols in England’s Dreaming, Elijah Wald examines the life and legend of Robert Johnson by examining in detail the origins, circumstances and environment of Johnson as a musician and performer. The result is, without a doubt, the clearest, most complete and honest look at Robert Johnson to date. Wald does a fantastic job of getting inside Johnson’s head and making educated guesses as to his mot ...more
Michele
Great exploration of blues and their original place in popular music. However, Wald is obviously fighting some blues scholar group-think that doesn't seem as prevalent anymore. Perhaps this book is what helped show scholars that the popular lonesome, weary, traveled blues player icon was not the only, nor the most common blues singer out there.
I found his assertion that women were the original consumers of blues and women vocalists (like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, etc) were the ones who originall
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Mike Horne
Started reading at my daughter's in Philly. This book is not so much about Robert Johnson as the construct of rural blues. The book was not great prose, but I learned a lot about the blues from 20s to 40s. Great stuff that is! You must get a hold of Rhapsody (I do the $12 month subscription) as you read this book. Reading about Bukka White, Sonny Boy Williamson, or Dinah Washington is a bit pointless without listening to the songs.

He says the most underrated blues artist are Bessie Smith, Leroy
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C.E.
For experienced blues fans, the mythology surrounding Robert Johnson is so thick it would be easy to wonder what exactly Wald has to add to the story at this point. However, this is a pretty interesting read. Wald's thesis, that what constitutes the canon for white blues fans is far from what was actually the most popular/widely regarded music in its time is far from earth shattering and at times he seems to be trying to pick a fight that doesn't exist. However, he manages to cover some new grou ...more
Todd  Fife
This is the best book I have read about the Blues. While many of the arguments are just obvious common sense, hell if I had ever connected the dots. It seems like most of the criticism I have read pertaining to the book deal with Wald's addressing the mythologizing that surrounds Robert Johnson (all of which results in the fact that he is held in loftier esteem than a good many other deserving characters). Admittedly, this is something I myself have have been grappling with for a good many years ...more
Zeb Larson
Really more a history of the perception of '30s blues music. If you're looking for a Robert Johnson biography it falls short. It's brilliant in other regards .
Mark Hartzer
While I certainly don't mind authors that have a particular viewpoint or opinion, I don't enjoy being lectured. Yes, we get it; bluesmen (and women) wanted to make money, and making money meant playing popular tunes. Leroy Carr and Bessie Smith were popular and Robert Johnson wasn't. Etc...

I think Wald's basic premise is true, that Delta blues sung by someone like Johnson are no more 'authentic' than those rendered by other, more popular artists of the time, I don't need to be hit over the head
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Matt
History is written by the victors, as they say, and it should surprise just about no one that the victors in the history of blues music are white folks. Wald makes a compelling case that the honkistocracy guided the initial selection of tunes that would be recorded and released, and that blues artists of the 20s and 30s were vastly more well-rounded than all that. Similarly, in the blues revival of the 60s, it was the children of the honkistocracy (in one case, quite literally the son) who left ...more
Garth Moore
Decent read to learn more about Robert Johnson. If your a blues fiend or a blues guitarist, you should give it a read.
Curtis Nugent
A lot of blues fans will not like this book. It is not a glorification of Johnson and other masters of the Delta Blues. It sort of brings us back to reality about what this music is all about. After all, blues was the pop music of its day. Some will be turned off by Wald's almost academic treatment of juke joints and traveling blues men. You may not like what Wald says or how he says it, but it is the truth.
Joe Ahearn

This is the best book on Robert Johnson and the Delta blues tradition that I've read. Wald's major thesis is that Johnson was heavily influenced by the popular music of his day and would have found classification as a "country blues" artist confining and ridiculous. Wald is also excellent on the historical development of the blues, Johnson's biography, and the establishment of the Johnson cult after Johnson died. Highly recommended for those interested in Johnson, the blues, or the development o
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Now This Sound Is Brave
Nov 29, 2010 Now This Sound Is Brave rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: avid music lovers, blues aficionados, pop culture scholars
Less a biography of Johnson than a dissertation on how white blues aficionados shaped how we view the early blues scene, Escaping the Delta is a well-thought-out and personable study into the making of a myth. Wald's love and passion for blues music shines through as he puts Johnson's life and music in context, creating a different portrait of the blues legend than has been painted before, but with no less love for Johnson's talent and craft than has been heaped on the singer/guitarist's short-l ...more
Dianne Landry
I loved the first part of the book where the author gives a history of the blues. Who knew that some of the greatest blues singers of the early 20th century were white?

The second part of the book, where he examines Robert Johnson was pretty boring. The author analyzes each individual song Johnson recorded and does it in a very tedious manner.

I didn't even get to the third part because he lost me in part 2.

The 3 stars are for the first section which really was fascinating.
Nick
Dec 29, 2008 Nick rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: music
This history of the blues places Robert Johnson in the context of his time and the music of his time and place. Therefore, it corrects the widely held impression that Johnson in particular and the Delta bluesmen in general were recognized as tortured geniuses and were popularly acclaimed. At the same time, Wald respects and loves the Delta blues recordings and his chapters on Johnson's sessions are a sensitive track by track appreciation and evaluation.
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Elijah Wald is a musician and writer, with nine published books. Most are about music (blues, folk, world, and Mexican drug ballads), with one about hitchhiking.
His new book is a revisionist history of popular music, throwing out the usual critical conventions and instead looking at what mainstream pop fans were actually listening and dancing to over the years.
At readings, he also plays guitar an
...more
More about Elijah Wald...
How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas The Dozens: A History of Rap's Mama Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker's Journey The Blues: A Very Short Introduction

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