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

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.

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

A Writer’s Gotta Do What a Writer’s Gotta Do

MPF-Table-LeftThis was a working weekend, and I don’t mean mowing the yard, even though it does need it badly. I spent the past two days at the Mississippi Petrified Forest in Flora. For those who don’t know, this is a privately owned park at a spot where, about 300,000 years ago, some really large trees got swept down a river in some past deluge and deposited to turn into stone. There’s a stone and fossil museum, gift shop, and a nature trail that takes you past some of the logs that have eroded out of the loess cliffs over the centuries. If you’re at all interested in such things—I am—it makes for an interesting walk.

This weekend they were having their 50th Anniversary and celebrated with crawfish, live music, and…book signings? Yep. Part of the eclectic assemblage of all day events. Along with flint-knapping demos, geode cracking, and sessions with metaphysical and holistic healers. I was dubious of course. I always am, about pretty much anything. It’s my nature and annoys my wife no end. But she was participating and I was invited too and I thought, why not?

Okay, for those who have not done this before, a signing can take many forms, but usually it will involve you, in a more or less trafficked spot, behind a table piled with your books—a small pile or a large pile, depending—being friendly and talking to people, two things that everyone who knows me will concede are not my inclinations. It doesn’t even necessarily involve selling and signing books, though that’s the premise and the way it tends to work with the right venue and the right crowd. I knew going in that this was not my venue or crowd, but I didn’t mind. I figured that the worst that could happen was that I’d have a couple days to catch up on my reading, and at least I’d get some practice at self-promotion under less than ideal conditions.

Which just goes to tell you how little I know. Continue reading