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

4.02  ·  Rating Details  ·  881 Ratings  ·  70 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
Paperback, 368 pages
Published December 14th 2004 by Amistad (first published 2004)
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May 27, 2016 Julie rated it did not like it
Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald is a 2004 Amistad publication.

As a long-time fan of the blues and Robert Johnson, I saw the cover and title of this book and snapped it up. Robert Johnson’s short life and the influence he left behind is always a fascinating topic of conversation and I was eager to read a book I thought was centered around the legend.

Why would I think this book was centered around Robert Johnson? Well, Robert’s image is the only o
Jan 30, 2016 Benjamin rated it liked it
Shelves: blues
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,
Jul 19, 2012 Nelson rated it really liked it
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
Jun 23, 2009 Bill rated it really liked it
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
Jan 24, 2010 Chris rated it really liked it
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
Apr 21, 2014 Richard rated it really liked it
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
Mar 30, 2008 Rodney rated it it was amazing
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 . . .
Feb 20, 2008 Darren rated it really liked it
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.
Nov 25, 2015 Jeff rated it liked it
Shelves: music-writing
Robert Johnson has a couplet, from "Me and the Devil Blues," that stands out among the many superb lyrics in his catalogue: "You may bury my body down by the highway side | So my old evil spirit can take a Greyhound Bus and ride." That stands with an image out of the 18th C. Japanese poet, Basho, "far on a journey, my dream hovers over the withered fields." (I'm paraphrasing Robert Hass's translation.) Such a comparison tends -- Greil Marcus must have inoculated this tendency -- to read Johnson' ...more
Jun 07, 2015 Ian rated it it was ok
The author really belabors some stale points, chiefly that are modern perception of the biggest names in the blues world are not reflected by the sales data and feedback from people who were around at the time. Some of the biggest stars and best-selling artists of the early decades of the blues era have been neglected and even forgotten to time—guys like Peetie Wheatstraw, Lonnie Johnson, and Tampa Red have been overlooked for the Robert Johnsons, despite the fact that they sold tons of records ...more
Jan 18, 2015 Steve rated it liked it
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
Feb 07, 2014 Andrew rated it liked it
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
Jay B.  Larson
Apr 22, 2013 Jay B. Larson rated it did not like it
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
May 29, 2013 Jamie Howison rated it liked it
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
Aug 16, 2010 Megan rated it really liked it
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.
Apr 22, 2009 Sim rated it really liked it
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. :-)
Jan 19, 2016 Nadia rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I read this ages ago but anyways, the first half of this book isn't about Robert Johnson so much as about busting up the mythology that is built up about the blues and blues musicians, asks why he was so mythologized when so many other musicians that were popular in their day (and popular with black audiences) are forgotten. A good chunk of time is spent talking about how blues musicians who actually originally played all kinds of music were only allowed to release songs of one genre by record l ...more
Apr 09, 2015 Pmacke rated it really liked it
Shelves: music
though at times bordering on nerdy academia, the book is insightful and informative and delivers a distinct, hard-to-argue-with, viewpoint, that is, modern audiences (mostly white) trace the blues from now-to-then, from the stones to muddy waters and ultimately to robert johnson and therefore see RJ as a one-of-a-kind force; but viewing the blues chronologically, from wc handy, ma rainey, son house, etc. to RJ perhaps shows things more realistically - that robert johnson was a professional music ...more
Jun 01, 2013 Josh rated it liked it
Shelves: music, history, biography
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
Dec 15, 2013 Drew rated it it was amazing
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
East Bay J
Sep 26, 2007 East Bay J rated it it was amazing
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
Brandon Bohl
Feb 24, 2015 Brandon Bohl rated it really liked it
I enjoyed the book. The middle section of the book drops a lot of names and albums, so it is useful to have Spotify/ iTunes on when reading. This helps the reader understand the progression of American blues from 1930s, to Robert Johnson, all the way to Eric Clapton. The author was extremely diligent in his research and doesn't speculate as much as other biographers on Robert Johnson and his supposed occult beliefs (which are actually passively disputed by the author).

If you are a fan of the Bl
Michael Brown
May 02, 2016 Michael Brown rated it liked it
The author brings some serious scholarship and knowledge to this attempt at demystifying the cult surrounding blues musicians such as Robert Johnson. But I would have preferred much clearer arguments and less passionate over-engagement with the topic. Often the text got bogged in a lot of repetitive examples and certain statements betrayed a faulty logic (e.g., is Eric Claption really a "weak" singer?). Probably my favourite part was the song by song analysis.
Nov 06, 2012 Michele rated it liked it
Shelves: music
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
Mike Horne
Aug 30, 2009 Mike Horne rated it liked it
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
May 11, 2016 Dan rated it it was ok
A really white dude grogs his nard, at length, about black music. But if you can get past that, "Escaping the Delta" is a fairly interesting look at the evolution of the Blues and of public perception of it.

That said, one wonders who (beside himself) Wald was writing for. He takes tortured pains to remove the narrative from its historical context (i.e. treating the change in black musical tastes/expectations after the second world war as if it happened in a vacuum), which is likely to turn off r
Jun 30, 2012 C.E. rated it really liked it
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
May 14, 2013 Todd Fife rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 14, 2014 Zeb Larson rated it really liked it
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 .
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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 about Elijah Wald...

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“the first published blues was a song called “I Got the Blues,” which appeared in New Orleans in 1908. Its composer was an Italian American named Antonio Maggio, and it began with a twelve-bar section using a melody that is a clear predecessor of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” 0 likes
“Legend says this man sold his soul to the Devil. I don’t know about that. All I can say is, when he died, the members of this church had love in their hearts and gave him a resting place, and God wrote that down. Now, I don’t know what Robert Johnson told the Lord. You don’t know what Robert Johnson told the Lord. We all have come short of the glory of God.” 0 likes
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