You may think this music was created by poor, broke-down black men in the American South, to be precise the fertile cotton plantations and ramshackle surroundings known as the Mississippi Delta. You may perceive that these men lived in hard times framed by social and economic degradation, disconnected from urban modernity. You may believe these dire conditions invested the music with a mysterious poignancy, a sense of moral and artistic authenticity utterly lacking in the popular sounds of the day. You might even imagine a certain romance about this primitive early music, as if by the very nature of its otherness, it’s somehow imbued with a purity and closeness to The Truth that all us citified folks can’t even fathom.
You’d be wrong about a lot of that. But no worries, it’s not your fault.
See, while much of the best scholarship details the music’s multi-faceted evolution from Southern roots (not just Mississippi) to worldwide love, the popular notion of how the blues came to be is a lot less nuanced. In that realm, a certain creation myth took hold long ago. This myth was the story of bluesman as itinerant shaman, weaving some otherworldly spell from his weathered voice and sun-baked guitar. The problem with it is that it didn’t spring from the people who lived the music when it was made – not the audiences, not the critics, and certainly not the musicians. No, this notion came from people who thought the coolest thing about this stuff was that, a generation after its day, it was almost impossible to find.
These people were record collectors, most of them young men, most all of them white, in the ‘40s and ‘50s. They set themselves busy about discerning the lost traces of a stark, acoustic music that bore only the faintest resemblance to the hot, electric sounds then emerging from big cities. To their ears, the music of the moment was shrill and derivative, and they rushed to embrace a music all but forgotten about, some strange sound that seemed to come from a time and space untainted by commercial regards – and, therefore in their minds, purer.
They scoured attics and junkbins and second-hand stores – 30-odd years before hip-hop DJ’s and beatmakers, they were the first cratediggers. They had two basic critieria: the spookier the singer the more profound the song, and the harder a copy to find the better. They ended up naming the style after the Mississippi territory where it seemed to them a large number of these musicians hailed from: the Delta blues.
But by putting a premium on the music’s scarcity and perceived mysticism, the collectors missed some key points. Yes, these men were poor, but it wasn’t their intention to stay that way if at all possible. Many of them could play much more than straight-up blues music. Times were changing around them, and getting ready to change a whole lot more. And there were other strains of blues and black pop music out there, which black audiences enjoyed just as much (if not more so).
But these details never made it into the creation myth of the blues. The two qualities of old blues music most cherished by the collectors – its high artistic pedigree and its low availability - shaped the image of the mysterious old bluesman from days of yore, never to sample life much beyond the plantation or the backwoods. By far, the most iconic figure of this type was an astonishing singer and guitarist whose music, indeed, would never have made it into the lexicon of American roots music had it not been for collectors. His story is so steeped in southern American gothic that if he didn’t actually exist, he would have had to be invented. In some respects, he was.
Robert Johnson’s recorded output consists of exactly 29 compositions, 12 of them recorded twice. He had three recording sessions, in Texas between 1936 and 1937. That’s it. His records didn’t sell too well, and not too many copies survived the years. He died under shady circumstances before he could break through to the big time. Years later, his work was championed by the blues collectors and their kindred spirits, the folk music revivalists of the 1960s. They were in thrall to Johnson’s dexterity and rhythm on the guitar, and haunting vocal imagery.
When Columbia finally reissued Johnson’s music on albums, they didn’t mince on the superlatives when it came time for album titles: King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961). Johnson’s music was so singular, and so powerfully affecting, that some took to it as the fount of all wisdom, the essential beginning point of blues music as we know it. That he supposedly became so good only by selling his soul to the Devil only made the story that much better.
Musicologist Elijah Wald pokes holes through that story in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad, 2004). Wald explains Johnson’s genius not with mushy platitudes or hoary metaphors about trains and hellhounds, but with basic research and analysis. His digging reveals Johnson as an artist wholly of his time and place: a traveling musician in the ‘30s rural South, possessed of incredible skill and magnetism, and a keen student of what others were doing, taking in everyone from previous acoustic bluesmen Lonnie Johnson and Son House to the urban sounds of Leroy Carr. But Wald ultimately places Johnson among his contemporaries as a “musician’s musician” whose sales and influence didn’t extend much beyond the Delta. The audience that elevated Johnson to the upper pantheon of musical titans was nowhere in evidence while he was alive, or at any point soon after his death.
Escaping the Delta is less a Johnson biography than a primer on blues music between the two World Wars. Wald argues that the broader musical landscape was far more varied than the record collectors’ fixation on rural bluesmen would lead one to believe. First, those early bluesmen likely had more varied repertoires than they were allowed to record, as label A&R men discouraged selections from the black stringband end of things (see the Carolina Chocolate Drops discussion in Retelling the History of Black Music: Adventures in Retro-ism) or anything that leaned too “pop” (meaning tunes familiar to non-blues audiences).
Those repertoires were varied because, Wald says, that’s how the players got paid. Those early bluesmen drew upon a variety of influences, including whoever was on the charts at the time. Folks who either owned a radio or knew someone who did heard broadcasts from all across the country of everything from downhome blues to uptown schmaltz. Also, jukeboxes were introduced in the ‘30s, bringing the latest records into juke joints and other hang-out spots. Between those two avenues, everyone knew what the hit songs were, and any guitar player hoping to pick up some cash at a gig had better know what the dancers liked.
Wald maintains that there’s absolutely no reason to assume that the early bluesmen were content to suffer for their art. There was already plenty of suffering to go around, thanks to Jim Crow. They made records hoping, in fact, to ease that suffering a little. Having a record out helped many a player make a bigger name for himself, which could increase their asking price for live gigs. If that record got a following a couple of towns away, that helped increase the musician’s circuit of possible gigs. Nobody expected to get rich off records alone, but the smarter and more successful recording artists weren’t making records solely for their health.