Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald (Amistad, 2012)
I thought I knew the Blues. After all, I was born and raised in Mississippi, and while I live in New York now I’ll probably not last long enough to match the chunk of my life spent within 40 miles of HWY 61 and within spitting distance of the Delta.Then a very good friend of mine recommended this book and I had sense enough to listen to her (Hi, Amiga).
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 and does as good a job as probably can be done with separating fact from legend. Spoiler Alert: No, Robert Johnson did not sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 for his guitar chops. The real story is much more interesting. As is the real story of the Blues, where it started, who started it, who the early performers were and who they were not. How early 20th century popular music informed and shaped it. The role of the amateurs and the role of the professional musicians. 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 book. While Wald, as I said, does a great job of separating fact from legend, the legends remain, of course. Legends are awfully hard to kill, and Robert Johnson at the Crossroads is too good a story. But if you want the real story, or at least as close to it as any of us are likely to get, this book is the place to go.