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Tracing the evolution of the blues

Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, By Elijah Wald, Amistad, 342 pp., $24.95

Mention the name Robert Johnson and a whole world is conjured up. A bluesman's bluesman, he came from the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Trailed by a hellhound, he sold his soul to the devil at a desolate crossroads so he could play guitar like no one else. Dead more than two decades, he would become an icon when his music was discovered by a clique of English rockers.

"Up until I was 25," wrote Eric Clapton, one of Johnson's latter-day disciples, "if you didn't know who Robert Johnson was, I wouldn't talk to you. . . . His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice."

In Elijah Wald's entertaining "Escaping the Delta," a history of the blues, Wald dares to deconstruct the myth that grew up around Johnson after his death at age 27 in August 1938 in Greenwood, Miss. Sold his soul to Satan? Balderdash, says Wald, adding that the legend emerged from one contradictory testimony in an oral history of bluesman Tommy Johnson (no relation).

The be-all, end-all of the blues? Not among his audience at the time. While living, he had one minor hit, "Terraplane Blues." That, and 28 other songs recorded in two extended sessions, made scarcely a dent among black audiences who snapped up songs by Leroy Carr, Lonnie Johnson, and Tampa Red, three giants mainly forgotten today.

Why? Because, argues Wald, Johnson was one-stop shopping for the white liberal folklorists and record collectors: a synthesizer of Carr and Kokomo Arnold's infectious melodies; Tampa Red's slide guitar; Son House's intense, countrified north Delta sound; and Skip James's moody soulfulness. Although Johnson wore a suit, to many he epitomized the stereotype of the poor meandering folk singer. The youngest of 11 children, he knew three fathers before he was 7. After he married young, his wife died in childbirth. Coming from Mississippi -- that perceived center of social, economic, and racial injustice -- who better to sing and to play authentically about loneliness and despair amid the Depression? He played guitar, considered more folksy than the piano. He died young, luring romantics. He had only those 29 recordings, attracting collectors.

"To the early white blues fans, who valued Johnson as an idiosyncratic folk artist," Wald writes, "they preferred to think of him as a mysterious Delta roots musician, and wanted to hear him moaning deep laments and playing old-fashioned slide numbers, not kicking off boogie shuffles that sounded only one step removed from the R&B hits of Jimmy Reed and Junior Parker." (Parker, a popular artist not treasured by blues scholars, scored a hit in 1959 on Johnson's shuffle "Sweet Home Chicago," an anthem for the great migration northward of rural Southern blacks.)

Wald, in a lengthy prologue on the development of the blues, shows that blues pioneers mastered a much wider variety of music than the down-home tunes that early recording engineers steered them toward. Singers thought of today as blues artists often played Jimmie Rodgers's pioneering country blues yodels, Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo covers, and vaudeville-inspired "hokum" double-entendre tunes (Johnson's "Terraplane Blues," ostensibly about a popular car, was no exception). Wald posits that had Johnson lived, he might have become known for more commercial "jump" tunes of the era, led a band, or evolved toward the electrified Chicago blues sound of contemporaries such as Muddy Waters.

But Johnson's isolated work reflected a certain era. And that work, by happenstance, benefited from much higher recording values than many popular cuts of the time. It enables a listener to hear wide gradations in voice and guitar, such as his whispered "Oh, can't you hear that wind howl?" on the hypnotic "Come On In My Kitchen" or his breathtaking full-octave slide guitar on "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom." Legendary musical scout John Hammond, after hearing the recordings, wanted to book Johnson for his Spirituals to Swing concert in December 1938, the Carnegie Hall concert devoted to black American music. Hearing of Johnson's death, Hammond brought in other musicians for the concert but resorted to recordings for two segments: African field songs and two cuts by Johnson, "Walking Blues" and "Preachin' Blues." Johnson's renaissance among white blues collectors comes from the 1961 Columbia rerelease of a collection of his work, entitled "The King of the Delta Blues Singers," which grabbed, among others, Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger.

Wald makes no pretensions of calling "Escaping the Delta" a definitive biography of Johnson. Indeed, after a long buildup, there is only one heavily annotated chapter on his life -- and three on his musical work and the posthumous spread of his legend. But by avoiding the unproven tales accepted by other chroniclers -- and offering a broader contextual look at the strange evolution of blues, with Johnson as a case study -- Wald unearths freshness and surprise from well-trodden ground.

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