Elijah Wald has a knack for writing books that make one re-think what they think they know, and his book Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues does just that. Admittedly, the reason I picked up the book in the first place was both a desire to learn more about Blues, and to read another book authored by Mr. Wald, my first being How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll.
For starters, Elijah Wald is brilliant, and as Steve Knopper said in The Chicago Tribune, that although Wald is somewhat of a ‘revisionist historian’, in Escaping The Delta, he isn’t so much being the revisionist, but instead looks back on both Robert Johnson – and the Blues in general – “with context and common sense”. Something I couldn’t have said better myself. Wald speaks ‘to’ as opposed to ‘at’ his reader with fresh perspective and somewhat of a swift kick or wake-up call, illuminating what we should already know and dispelling the white myth of black Blues.
Admittedly, upon first picking up Escaping The Delta, I believed Blues to be the musical genre I knew least about. Upon its completion, not only did I discover that I knew much more then I thought I had, but that my thinking I knew little about the ‘genre’ was my first mistake. Wald is no lover of musical classifications, and is quick to point out the grayed divisions between what we believe are classifications or genres of music and what is in fact truth are wholly different. The “Invention of the Blues” part of the title is almost literal in that what we now know of Robert Johnson and many other blues “legends” has become somewhat skewed and romanticized, and all is not as it seems.
At the same time, I did learn quite a bit I didn’t know, and all the while as I read I listened to the music of Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King (among others) and was able to draw direct connections to Wald’s point, and well as every other music genre within which the Blues lives on today.
For anyone who thinks themselves a Musicologist of sorts, my advice is not just to read everything Elijah Wald ever wrote, but, should you ever meet him, to avoid engaging in any sort of musical debate with this man. He knows his stuff better than most, and would likely school most challengers, although something tells me he would welcome such debate in the hopes to be challenged himself. Escaping The Delta is a phenomenal book, by a brilliant and thought provoking author, and well worth the read for any music lover – genres notwithstanding.