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Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

by Elijah Wald

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-06-052423-5
Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins

A reconsideration of the Mississippi blues singer’s legend in the context of the popular music of his time.

Wald, author of the engaging 2001 musical travelogue Narcocorridos, attempts to debunk the sizable myths surrounding Robert Johnson, today the most lionized of ’30s Delta blues singers. Most of this heavily researched work is devoted not to Johnson, but to the evolution of blues as the popular entertainment of African-Americans. Wald notes that Johnson was a minor commercial figure whose archaic-sounding solo recordings stood in marked contrast to the slick blues hits of his day. He also points out that Johnson’s handful of recordings synthesized, and often purloined, the work of such bestselling contemporaries as Lonnie Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw, and Kokomo Arnold, as well as such important but comparatively obscure Mississippi musicians as Son House and Skip James. Wald’s central point is that the errant contemporary perception of Johnson as a haunted, “primitive” artist and the key figure of Delta blues grew out of the highly romantic conceptions of such (white) promoters and archivists as John Hammond and Alan Lomax, whose notions were accepted as gospel by the (white) audiences and musicians who made Johnson a posthumous superstar. While one can’t really argue with these conclusions, the reading is unusually heavy sailing. Those seeking fresh insight into Johnson’s music will be disappointed, since chapters about the purported subject offer no new information and little original analysis. The main thesis—which is not exactly stop-the-presses news to blues aficionados, but which could pique come-lately fans—is laboriously developed; it takes Wald, usually a briskly effective writer, more than a hundred lugubrious pages to finally arrive at Johnson’s doorstep. In the end, this is essentially an academic enterprise. Should anyone really be surprised that, at a distance of 65 years, today’s white blues listeners receive Robert Johnson’s music in a very different manner than his original black audience did?

Some solid observations ultimately get mired in the Mississippi mud.