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Music Historian Explores Work of  Blues Legend  Robert Johnson - 2004-02-15

Blues musician Robert Johnson is famous both for the songs he recorded and the legends he inspired. His name has been widely linked to tales of how he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for musical talent. Musician and music historian Elijah Wald has written a book that looks beyond those myths to examine the real roots of Robert Johnson's talent, and the impact of his career. It's called Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.

"Terraplane Blues" is one of Robert Johnson's most popular songs, but not everyone appreciates it for the same reasons. Elijah Wald found that out when he traveled south to the small community of Morgan City, Mississippi. He was there to help dedicate a grave marker for Robert Johnson.

"We were playing Robert Johnson's music, and there were all these white record executives and white reporters and they were all nodding their heads because we sounded like Robert Johnson - we were very authentic," he recalled. "And there were also all the black people who had never heard of Robert Johnson, and they were just laughing at the funny lines in the song. That was one of the moments that set me on the trail of this book. I thought, this isn't deep dark folklore, this is fun."

In Escaping the Delta, Elijah Wald writes that blues music should be celebrated not just in scholarly documentaries, but for what it originally was - a form of popular entertainment among rural southern blacks. And if Robert Johnson is now considered one of the most important figures in the history of that entertainment, Elijah Wald says his renown came only after his death.

"When he made his records in 1935, the black public who was buying blues records showed almost no interest whatsoever," he said. "There were a lot of people around in those times who were very, very good, and he was not all that distinctive for those times. He certainly is not revolutionary. Whereas if you hear him coming backwards from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, you've never heard anything like that before, and he knocks your socks off. And also, the stars were in Chicago, and he was trying to break in out of Mississippi."

Robert Johnson was born in 1911, just as the first blues hits were starting to get published and recorded in Chicago and other big cities. He grew up with the music, in and around the Mississippi Delta region that's come to be known as the birthplace of the blues.

"Everybody talks about how he could play any music he heard," said Elijah Wald. "He could play Bing Crosby. He could play country and western. He could play hillbilly. And how crowds would just gravitate to him. He was this perfect fusion of the older, deeper Delta sound and this smooth sound coming in on records from Chicago."

Elijah Wald has put out a companion CD with his book called Back to the Crossroads. It contains musicians who influenced Robert Johnson, including Kokomo Arnold playing "Old Original Kokomo Blues."

"Robert Johnson's probably most famous song, 'Sweet Home Chicago,' was just a reworking of 'Old Original Kokomo Blues,'" said Elijah Wald. "We often think of these people as being the beginning, but they had their roots as well."

Had Robert Johnson lived longer, Elijah Wald believes he might have achieved the kind of success he craved. But he died at the age of 27. According to one story, he was poisoned by an angry husband, whose wife had flirted with the musician. He left behind at least one very influential fan.

"There was this guy, John Hammond at Columbia Records, who back in the late 1930s got this idea that Robert Johnson was the greatest blues singer of all time," said Elijah Wald. "And when Elvis Presley hit 20 years later, and there began to be a market of people looking for early rock and roll, he arranged for Columbia Records to put out an LP of old Robert Johnson records. And all these English rockers like Eric Clapton and Keith Richard of the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac - to them it just opened up a whole new world. So it really inspired a whole generation of rock-and-rollers and has continued to do that to this day."

The power of Robert Johnson's music was enhanced by the dark legends that grew up around him. Elijah Wald believes the myths about Robert Johnson and the devil spring largely from the songs he sang. "There were a couple of songs where he mentioned the devil," notes Elijah Wald.

"There's this wonderful interview with one of his old friends, who grew up with him in Mississippi, where a blues expert says, 'Did Robert Johnson ever talk about selling his soul to the devil?' And he said, 'Oh sure, he'd always come in joking around like that. We never did think nothing of it though.'" Elijah Wald says he drew on many sources to write his book from the recollections of those who knew Robert Johnson to historic blues recordings now housed at the Library of Congress. He says his research gave him a new appreciation for Robert Johnson's talent, and for the way blues music has come to mean so many different things for different people.

"Blues had evolved steadily as black popular music," he explained. "And black people started calling their music soul music and then funk music and it was still an evolution of the same music. But white people picked up blues because they were nostalgic. They wanted somebody they could imagine sitting on the front porch in Mississippi with his guitar. And that took them straight back to Robert Johnson."

Elijah Wald is the author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.