[Dixielandjazz] The Blues - Revisited

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sat Feb 28 13:17:00 PST 2004

Well, here's another take on the legend of the blues. Is the legend of
jazz similar?

Steve Barbone

February 28, 2004 - NY Times

Revisionists Sing New Blues History


       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

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.

Mr. Wald and other critics argue that the discrepancy between Johnson's
stature and his accomplishments stems from a fundamental
misunderstanding of blues music by later, mostly white, writers.

Last year Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch's "Robert Johnson: Lost
and Found" (University of Illinois Press) traced the paper trail of the
Johnson myth through the decades and found that white critics and
promoters were telling tall tales about him while he was still alive.
The authors tracked down misleading articles about him dating to 1937,
and reconstructed the comical spread of Johnson's Faust legend — that he
sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in return for his
extraordinary gifts as a guitarist — from a single, dubious 1966
interview with Johnson's friend and fellow blues musician Son House.

Another book, Patricia R. Schroeder's "Robert Johnson, Mythmaking and
Contemporary American Culture" (due from University of Illinois Press in
July), traces the persistence of Johnson's image in the culture at
large, from postage stamps to novels to plays. Johnson's myth, it
suggests, is truly larger than his life.

"This just adds to the legend of Johnson," said David Evans, a professor
of music at the University of Memphis and a veteran blues researcher.
"Like Elvis and Hank Williams and certain other stars, he can be all
things to all people."

Stopping for coffee at a Midtown hotel during his recent book tour, Mr.
Wald explained that "the blues was pop music — it simply wasn't folk

He continued: "It was invented retroactively as black folk music, which
brought a new set of standards to bear on it and created a whole new
pantheon of heroes. Suddenly the people who were the biggest stars were
too slick to be real."

Johnson became a perfect model for the 1960's rock star. He lived hard,
played like a man possessed and died young — at around 27 — in
mysterious circumstances. No wonder he appealed to the Jim Morrison

The obsession with Johnson at the expense of almost all other blues
singers, Mr. Wald suggests, has grossly distorted the history of the
blues. Prewar blues musicians were much more versatile and pop oriented
than is widely known; Mr. Wald notes that when Alan Lomax interviewed
Muddy Waters in Mississippi in the early 1940's, he found that Waters's
repertory included "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and seven Gene Autry songs —
more pop than blues. And the immediate origins of the blues, Mr. Wald
writes, are most likely in black vaudeville, not in field hollers. The
blues, in other words, was up-to-the-minute pop, a sign of urbanization,
technology and sophistication, not primitivism or tradition.

Not all historians agree with Mr. Wald's critique. Johnson may not have
been a star, some say, but he had many important followers like Muddy
Waters and Elmore James, who continued to play his songs in the decades
after his death.

And the blues queens, some argue, cannot really be considered neglected.
John Szwed, a professor of anthropology and African-American studies at
Yale and currently the Louis Armstrong visiting professor of jazz
studies at Columbia, called them overvalued. "The classic women blues
singers have always received more attention from jazz critics and
historians, the folks who canonized the blues tradition," he said.

Some critics also see a red herring in measuring importance in terms of
raw pop appeal. "You can argue that Emily Dickinson wasn't that
important," said Jeff Todd Titon, a professor of ethnomusicology at
Brown. "Nobody in the 19th century was influenced by her poetry, not
until literary critics got ahold of her."

But the notion that Johnson's fortunes and the history of the blues have
largely been decided by the white rock 'n' roll world appeals to many
blues experts.

"There are problems with the idea of the blues as a roots music," Mr.
Titon said. "Because if so, then rock 'n' roll is the flower. It used to
be that the flower was jazz, which is equally misleading. Blues is a
music in and of itself."

Mr. Wald has a looser definition. Blues music, as he sees it, is simply
part of a continuum of black pop. Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr and Bessie
Smith were not moaning field laborers. "They were Sam Cooke, they were
Snoop Dogg, they were Aretha Franklin," he said. "That's what we've
forgotten, and that's what a lot of white blues fans don't want them to

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