Author : Ben Sisario
Source : http://nytimes.com/2004/02/28/arts/music/28BLUE.html?8hpib
(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.