Sunday, February 17, 2008

Escaping the Delta - Book Review

The sub-title of Elijah Wald’s book is "Robert Johnson and the invention of the blues". Wald suggests that it is the audience that gives meaning to music, and that to understand music as a cultural artifact, you must understand what broader purpose the music serves for a specific audience. The blues meant something entirely different to its original black audience than to white aficionados of the 1960s, 1970s, and thereafter who reshaped blues to meet their own tastes.

The blues originated in the black community with “songs improvised to match a life of hard labor and constant troubles” . Vaudevillian “Ma Rainey” opened up a new future for the blues by taking songs from the field to the stage. Mamie Smith started a blues craze when she recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920. A host of female singers dominated the blues being performed throughout the 1920s. Blues was seen as an entertaining pop style, not a vehicle for transmitting black culture. Blacks were not nostalgic for the past. Wald points out, for its original black audiences , “Blues was the music of the present and future, not the oppressive plantation past” (Wald, 80). The performance of blues was dominated by big name female stars, and the market as long as the audiences were predominantly black, according to record executive Marshall Chess, was a “women’s market”.

Wald’s central thesis is that the observer gives meaning to what is being observed. The observer provides the meta-narrative. The career of Robert Johnson exemplifies the thesis. Johnson was a talented musician who produced a small body of work and died dramatically at an early age. In his lifetime, Johnson vied for popularity and was an example of someone holding his own “with the pop stars up north, rather than being stuck forever playing in run down country shacks” (Wald, 127). Johnson was all but forgotten until crowned “King of the Delta” in the 1960s by white middle class blues aficionados embracing the vision of a romanticized black culture of the past which reflected an “otherness” in opposition to white middle class norms. In the years between Johnson’s death in 1938 and his recognition as “King of the Delta”, blues music had been redefined. It was first redefined by Alan Lomax and John Hammond, as decisive musical opinion makers for a small bubble of New York liberal society which embraced the blues as a badge of otherness. Blues had left the realm of its original black audience. Obscurity had become a virtue. “The more records an artist had sold in 1928, the less he or she was valued in 1958” (Wald, 241).

The second re-definition came with the British musical invasion of the 1960s. “Slashing guitar and wailing harmonica” spoke to English musicians, who re-educated Americans on the meaning of the blues. White audiences were now seeking emotional release, raw, direct passion found lacking in white styles (Wald, 257). Johnson’s persona, as much as his music, propelled his rise to blues icon. As a person, he was seen as mysterious, dangerous and otherworldly…with the added benefit of having died young before his full potential could be realized. Johnson exemplified “the lifestyle that white listeners (associated) with the music: a homeless wanderer, alone in the world, haunted by demons, destroyed by violence” (Wald, 263). The blues image for white, predominantly male audiences, was that of hard bitten machismo. Paradoxically, while his white fans drank straight whiskey to get in the blues mood, an authentic master performer of the blues, Muddy Waters, drank only French champagne (Wald, 258).

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