Tony Russell sings the Blues
For a music that has always been resolutely secular, the blues has attracted a remarkable crowd of hierarchs and hierophants. Scholars, musicians, record collectors and other interested parties have spent half a century discerning musical sects (Texas blues, Chicago blues, etc.) and beatifying their performers according to arcane value systems of authenticity or plain 'greatness'. Their achievement has been to build a Valhalla where Son House and Skip James, whose reputations hardly extended beyond a few Mississippi counties, and whose 78 rpm discs sold so poorly that some survive in only one copy, sit close to the fire, but Clara Smith and Sara Martin, who were known throughout black America and whose sales ran into the hundreds of thousands, shiver in the draught of critical disregard. In those 50 years, myths have encrusted themselves on the blues like barnacles on a ship's hull. Particularly prevalent are the myths of purity, which hold that blues artists were unaware of, or at least untouched by, any music but their own, and that they had no truck with the commercial music business. Admittedly they made recordings, but they did so according to their own principles, not those of the marketplace. Standing out among them is the figure of Robert Johnson, whose profoundly affecting songs and short, scrappily documented life (he died at 27, poisoned, probably by a jealous husband) have furnished the most resonant blues myth of all: a lone figure waiting at a crossroads at midnight to do a deal with the Devil, exchanging his soul for the power to play a guitar that will bring men to their feet and women to their knees.
In this elegant and original book Wald shows that these are Edenic fantasies, with no basis in the real lives of professional musicians, let alone of black Americans in the early 20th century South. His subtitle is deliberately ironic: there were blues, and performers (especially, in the early years, women) to sing them and theatres to sing them in, long before Johnson came along. What Johnson helped to invent, posthumously and inadvertently, was the perception of the blues artist as an autonomous folk bard, which Wald exposes as almost entirely a romantic construct of white fans. Far from ignoring the marketplace, most blues artists tried to learn its lessons in how to make a living out of music. Johnson himself listened carefully to the records of his contemporaries and, having absorbed many of their melodic and textual ideas, redeployed them in his own songs. His primary skill was not invention (a scarce commodity in blues, and one not specially valued by its practitioners) but adaptation. In that domain he was superb; in pieces like 'Cross Road Blues', 'Come On In My Kitchen' and 'Hellhound On My Trail', matchless.
Many of these judgements and conclusions are not new, neither does Wald claim them to be. Numerous blues archaeologists have contributed in recent years to the sifting of truth from myth; another deflationary book about the Robert Johnson mythos appeared only a few months before this. What makes Wald's revisionist account particularly attractive is his civilised tone (in pleasant contrast to the waspishness of certain other pundits) and his insistence on drawing a map of blues country according to what the inhabitants say about it, rather than previous explorers. Robert Johnson may now stand as a colossus, but in his lifetime he counted for far less among black recordbuyers than Peetie Wheatstraw or Bumble Bee Slim or a score of other figures now virtually unknown except to specialists. Today, most people who know anything about blues recognise Johnson's name. Wald claims that he has scarcely ever encountered a black Southerner who does. It is impossible to understand Johnson's meaning to his original audience without taking account of, and if possible explaining, these apparent contradictions.
Robert Johnson the Robert Johnson of the almostmillionselling Complete Recordings CD, the three putative burial places, the two constantly recycled photographs and the dozens of recycled halftruths and legends is largely our creation, not his own or his community's. There's nothing wrong with that, but it is important to be clear about it, if only as a warning against weaving further myths about demondriven bluesmen making Faustian pacts with the spirit world. Most musicians were a little more concerned to get paid, get laid and get on to the next town, and if they waited at crossroads it was only to double their chances of hitching a ride.
Escaping the Delta is available from Amazon (UK)