Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
The blues was a polished, professional style of popular music and Robert Johnson was a talented but little known blues performer; so says Elijah Wald. Wald makes a good argument for this proposition, which does not detract from the fact that Robert Johnson's twenty nine recorded songs contain a unique and wonderful set of performances.
The blues, as it was understood in the 1920s, when Johnson was growing up, was music made by theatrically decked out women, "blues queens" like Ida Cox and Bessie Smith, who performed with jazz orchestras and sang in vaudeville theaters. Piano and guitar duos would play the blues in dance halls and guitar, fiddle and banjo players would play an older style of dance music at square dances.
Guitarists like Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller were often found playing in country "jukes" or on street corners until they became local hits, after being recorded during "field recording" sessions by the newly emerging record companies. It was during two of these field recording sessions, in 1936 and 1937, that Johnson laid down the tracks that led to his eventual crowning as "King of the Delta Blues." Unfortunately for him, Johnson's records did not sell well in his own time, although they made a big impression on a New York concert promoter and record executive, John Hammond.
In 1938 Hammond was putting together an extravaganza for Carnegie Hall, "From Spirituals to Swing," which was to feature Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mitchell's Christian Singers, Count Basie's Orchestra and, he hoped, Robert Johnson. Unfortunately Jonson died, probably murdered, before Hammond could find him and bring him to New York.
Because Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 27 he was unable to develop, as did his traveling companion Johnny Shines, into a mature country blues performer, or become a sophisticate "folk" musician as did his contemporary, Josh White, or go electric like Muddy Waters or go into jazz like Charlie Christian. We don't know what might have been.
Some of Robert Johnson's recordings were re-released on an LP in 1961 "King of the Delta Blues Singers." This album influenced The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dave Van Ronk and any number of modern musicians, who have created a kind of cult of Robert Johnson. Elijah Wald was, and is still, a member of that cult, but here, he attempts to set the record straight.