Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues puts to rest the romantic idea of the bluesman as illiterate troubadour. Author Elijah Wald’s book shows that the true pioneers of the blues were Vaudeville-trained female singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Louisville’s own Sara Martin. These women recorded at least a decade earlier than most of the Mississippi bluesmen, but they have been ignored by contemporary scholars or reassigned to the jazz bin. Escaping the Delta restores them to blues history and recasts the music as a story about African-American aspirations at the beginning of the 20th century.
“For its first fifty years, blues was primarily black popular music,” Wald explains. “Like rappers or country-and-western stars, the top blues singers were assumed to come from poor backgrounds and to understand the problems and aspirations of the folks on the street or out in the country, but they were also expected to be professional entertainers with nice cars and fancy clothes, admired as symbols of success.”
Wald was inspired to reexamine the story of the blues after he performed at the dedication of a grave marker for Robert Johnson, the most celebrated bluesman of the pre-war era. Johnson was rumored to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his extraordinary talent. He died at the age of 27 having recorded just 29 songs; some of them, like “Love In Vain” and “Hellhounds On My Trail,” classics that have been covered by the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the White Stripes, and many others. However, Wald was shocked to find that many of the elderly African-American members of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where Johnson is buried, didn’t know anything about the singer.
Johnson was only a minor recording star when he died in 1938. He gained international fame in the 1960s when fans of the folk revival began buying a reissue of his music called “King of the Delta Blues.” Johnson’s musical stature is totally a creation of critics, musicians, and scholars who were born decades after his death. Wald exposes the part that record company marketing and romanticism (if not outright racism) played in the modern perception of the blues and the intention of its artists. By telling the story from the perspective of the African-American record buyer Wald provides injects a new voice into the discussion of one of America’s most important art forms. The result is a fascinating and entertaining book.