Pittsburgh, Pa.
Contact Search Subscribe Classifieds Lifestyle A & E Sports News Home
A&E Recipes  Media Kit  Personals 
Tv Listings
The Dining Guide
Fashion to go
Book Review: Life story of early blues legend explores his genius and influence

Monday, February 09, 2004

By Jim White, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A large amount of blues history revolves around the very little that is known about one of the music's most famous players -- Robert Johnson, a man whose name is so often preceded by the word, one could believe that Legendary was his real first name.

Blues guitarist and singer Robert Johnson, 1935, Memphis, Tenn
Click photo for larger image.


That legend far outweighs the details of his short life: A wandering minstrel of a musician in the 1920s and '30s, he recorded 29 blues songs in two sessions in 1936 and 1937 and was poisoned by a jealous husband a year later at the age of 27.

Such was his musical power that Eric Clapton was once moved to proclaim: "I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice."

The power of his blues recordings, and the mystery of his largely undocumented life and death, have led blues scholars and writers to examine his life and work, hunting for the secrets of his music and influence.

The latest is musician and author Elijah Wald, who has produced a fascinating and knowledgeable book, "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues." (Amistad, $24.95). (released Jan. 9)

Wald looks in detail at Johnson's life, particularly his recordings, but he does more than many of his predecessors by trying to place this work in the context of Johnson's time instead of filtering it through our more contemporary vision.

Two main themes seem to weave their way through the book.

One, that Johnson is not necessarily the blues "source code" that he is often made out to be. As powerful and moving as Johnson's blues are, Wald says, they are the distillation of what came before him. An often expertly innovative distillation, but nevertheless, a synthesis of earlier music that has too often escaped the notice of contemporary white blues fans.

Second, that Johnson's blues -- indeed, all of what we now regard as a "pure' blues genre -- were actually just part of a much broader black music culture in the first half of the 20 th century.

Robert Johnson, taken in the early 1930s.
Click photo for larger image.

He points out that most blues performers were versatile musicians who catered to the tastes of their audience. And the tastes of the black audiences were wide. Generally, it was not until the years after World War II that a whiter audience developed a taste for the blues portions of black popular music.

Wald writes entertainingly and informatively, and often eloquently, with detailed source notes to back his contentions about how the shape of black music changed with its audiences.

Particularly interesting are his chapters of analysis of Johnson's recordings, looking for the source of Johnson's guitar licks and lyrics in the works of those who came before him, and looking for the inspiration of Johnson's genius as well.

A companion CD, "Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson" (Yazoo Records), with 23 tracks selected by Wald, documents the sources and predecessors of Johnson's music in a group of wonderfully remastered 78s by too-seldom-heard artists like Peetie Wheatstraw, Kokomo Arnold, Bumblebee Slim and Charlie Patton.

None of this, of course, diminishes the ultimate power of the music of Robert Johnson or his place in musical history.

As Wald writes: "The more I have listened to Robert Johnson, the more I have come to admire what he accomplished. He was indeed a unique genius, and created some of the most moving and complex music of the 20th century."

Jim White can be reached at or 412-263-1964.

E-mail this story E-mail this story  Print this story Printer-friendly page

Search |  Contact Us |  Site Map |  Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise |  About Us |  What's New |  Help |  Corrections
Copyright ©1997-2007 PG Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.