Just today I started Escaping the Delta (at this rate I will never get to my reading plan, interposing other books, but I am helpless to resist), prompted by an article. The basic idea is that the image of the blues man as drawing on an unbroken heritage, extending back to Africa, of field hollers and wash-tub basses, whence he organically and eloquently expressed the plight of the African-America in America is largely a romantic image which began in earnest with the arrival of The Rolling Stones in America, not the first slaves. Elijah Wald, the author, readily admits to being part of that romantic sixties movement which turned drifters and itinerant, untutored musicians into folk heroes with a tinge of Marxism. He discovered that the romance hid a more interesting fact: blues musicians were often trained and talented beyond the image of the raggedy man with a guitar slung over his shoulder, just ahead of the county sheriff ready to send him off to the county farm. Many played musical theater, vaudeville, and so forth, but record producers cultivated this more romantic image.
“We used to dance off that….”
The dreadful truth is that even the phantasmal Robert Johnson learned his blues off commercial records and worked toward a commercial contract himself. What??!! The man who sold his soul to the devil at the crosswords, hallowed in countless White guys’ songs and Hollywood movies, was actually first and foremost an entertainer? Yeah. I first got wind of this reading Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues where he wrote that Muddy Waters learned the blues off the radio. What??!! Not in church, not in the cotton fields?? Moreover, the blues became a genre quite late, much after the turn of the century.
I can’t wait to read this book, but I do want to publish my official caveat here: my wife’s family exhibits that deep South African-American culture to the T. Once, testing whether my father-in-law would recognize the blues and relate them to anything he knew from his youth in East Texas, I put on a Blind Lemon Jefferson album, figuring he would not be at all familiar with such a “old-timey” musician but might recognize the music as belonging in some way to his own heritage. With the first couple of bars, he exclaimed, “Oh! Old Blind Lemon. Oh yeah, he was a good one.” At times, I’ve played old Ethnic Folkways albums with ancient songs on them recorded in the 40s as the dying embers of this disappearing culture only to have my wife dance through the living room saying, “Oh yeah, Uncle so-and-so used to play that by nailing snuff bottles onto the porch and playing on a wire stretched over them and we’d dance off that.” Hmmm.
So any time I go to church (we just went last Saturday), I see a more educated congregation with higher income than what it was back in the 60s, but the music and culture remain in depth. So I harbor a suspicion that there still is a lot of romance to uncover in Black music, but Wald is keeping us on track.