Archive for the ‘Robert Johnson’ Category

Author : Elijah Wald

Source :


“I have no idea why this story seems to surface every few years as if it were news, but we are clearly on another round. The claim was made back in 2004 that all of Robert Johnson’s recordings were issued at a speed that was about 20% faster than he actually played. The most recent reappearance of this claim, in the UK Guardian newspaper, adds the completely spurious claim that this is the “consensus” among musicologists. So, to start at the beginning: No, it isn’t. It is possible that some musicologists believe Johnson’s recordings are at the wrong speed, but I am not aware of any. At this point, the consensus among experts on prewar blues–musicologists and musicians alike–is roughly what I will outline below. Of course, we could be wrong, and I am not suggesting that a majority vote should end this debate, but for the moment the consensus is that some of Johnson’s tracks may have been issued at the wrong speed, but it is wildly improbable (bordering on impossible) that all of them have been issued at a single, consistent, wrong speed.

Here are some reasons to rule the “slowed down” theory out:”



Author : Jeff Taylor

Source :


Every casual blues fan has met a hard case, the guy — it is always a guy — who pores over the tiny ads in the back of Goldmine in search of “real” blues recordings. He is the keeper of esoteric sideman knowledge, the arbiter of notes bent and pre-bent, and sadly in need of being told to give it a rest.

In Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2004), Elijah Wald seems like he’s out to take the stuffy blues purists down a notch or two with a fresh look at the received history of the blues. But despite his impressive scholarship and obvious love of the material, Wald winds up substituting his own prejudices for the old ones, which is not quite the improvement it could be.

Wald’s central theme is that, far from being an obscure folk tradition rescued by Alan Lomax and other white field recordists, blues was thriving, diverse popular music. Wald also expands on the recent welcome trend of knocking down the walls between different styles of music, revealing that musicians, black and white, country and urban, freely stole from one another for decades, to everyone’s benefit.

Wald uses artists’ recording histories as a guide to their popularity and influence. This approach reflects the extent to which records were a transmission belt for popular culture as far back as the 1920s and ’30s. (It also reminds us that fads are nothing new, as the spate of “Black Snake” songs — “That Black Snake Moan,” “New Black Snake Blues,” “That Black Snake Moan Number 2” — attests.) Wald tries to throttle the misconception that black artists were God-gifted but wild natives rather than practiced musicians with wide influences, experiences, and audiences. Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy in particular, Wald notes, were inaccurately branded Negro bumpkins. Sources as mainstream as Life spread this notion with such pieces as a Leadbelly feature titled “Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel.”

But Wald’s reliance on record sales soon leads him to equate cutting records with musical influence and standing. This is where the guitarist Robert Johnson comes in. Johnson never sold much of anything while he was alive, so Wald concludes Johnson does not matter as much as blues fans suppose. “As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure,” he claims, “and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note.”

That seems an awfully strong statement, one which requires a level of knowledge that Wald simply cannot have. Worse, it calls into question the words of such unimpeachable bluesmen as Muddy Waters and Son House, who in many interviews put Johnson in the hall of players who influenced them and had a distinct sound, if not a wide popular following.

Wald questions such testimony. “In assessing Johnson’s local reputation,” he cautions, “it is worth noting that the first white, northern blues fan that House, Waters, Honeyboy Edwards, and other Delta players met was already an ardent Johnson admirer. One has to wonder what effect this had on their own estimation of their onetime peer.”

No, one does not. It does not seem to occur to Wald that the bluesmen might have actually liked Johnson’s music.

Perhaps it is nothing more than a historical accident that Johnson’s music came to light in 1961 just as young British kids tired of skiffle looked to America for the latest new, old thing. And it makes sense that a blues-rocker like Eric Clapton would try to ground a 10-minute guitar wank fest in the blues tradition by tying it to the primal Johnson myth of a devil’s bargain and a desolate crossroad.

Wald seems to resent this hijacking of his orderly narrative in which the blues exists
on its own terms, independent of marketing stratagems, record store bins, or the embrace of ardent but confused popularizers and disciples. But culture, especially musical culture, doesn’t flow like gelatin into predictable molds. It bubbles and gurgles along, popping up in unexpected places and unexpected forms. When Clapton’s future Cream cohort Ginger Baker was playing Robert Johnson tunes with British blues revivalist Alexis Korner in the 1960s, who could have guessed that one day he’d be jamming with über-punk Johnny Rotten’s ’80s band Public Image Ltd.?

That sort of shock is the norm when music hits a universal nerve. Almost a century of popular music gets condensed into three minutes here, two minutes there. Marginally popular artists suddenly hold great sway. It happens all the time.

The blues doesn’t need Wald’s kind of revision. Just the occasional revival.


Author : Ben Sisario
Source :

(February 28, 2004)



Robert Johnson left 29 songs and little else, but it was enough. Johnson has long since become the most famous blues singer of all time, reaching a level in the pantheon of American music occupied by figures like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. The myths inevitably grew up around him. Most writers who have dealt with him have found it impossible to resist the story of his deal with the devil, or the image of him pursued by ”hellhounds.”

But as Johnson’s popularity has grown — the box set of his ”Complete Recordings” (Columbia/Legacy) has sold nearly two million copies worldwide — a growing number of music scholars have begun to question Johnson’s place in the canon, and the received wisdom about blues history itself.

Elijah Wald’s new ”Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues” (Amistad/HarperCollins) is one of the most contentious yet, daring to suggest that Johnson’s primacy was largely a creation of white fans and music critics of the 1960’s.

”As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure,” Mr. Wald writes, ”and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note.”

With extensive research into the listening habits of the audience of the time, Mr. Wald describes a history of the blues that is markedly different from the one in accounts like Martin Scorsese’s recent seven-part PBS series, ”The Blues.”

In Mr. Wald’s history, the principal players are not lonesome folk singers from dusty hamlets, but seasoned professionals riding the latest trends in black pop. They have names that are largely unknown today except among experts: Peetie Wheatstraw, Leroy Carr and Kokomo Arnold. And most of them were women. The kings of the blues were actually the queens of the blues: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and dozens of others now all but forgotten, singers like Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey and Sara Martin.

Johnson, who died in 1938, emerges in Mr. Wald’s account as a regional player eager to copy the latest hits. And he was only marginally successful. Just 11 of his songs were issued in his lifetime — the biggest stars recorded well over 100 songs, Mr. Wald points out — and his biggest hit, ”Terraplane Blues,” sold about 5,000 copies.