Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

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The life of blues legend Robert Johnson becomes the centerpiece for this innovative look at what many consider to be America's deepest and most influential music genre. Pivotal are the questions surrounding why Johnson was ignored by the core black audience of his time yet now celebrated as the greatest figure in blues history.

Trying to separate myth from reality, biographer Elijah Wald studies the blues from the inside -- not only examining recordings but also the recollections of the musicians themselves, the African-American press, as well as examining original research. What emerges is a new appreciation for the blues and the movement of its artists from the shadows of the 1930s Mississippi Delta to the mainstream venues frequented by today's loyal blues fans.

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About the author

Elijah Waldis a writer and musician whose books include Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. A respected expert on the folk revival, he collaborated with Dave Van Ronk on The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis. His awards include a 2002 Grammy, and he has taught blues history at UCLA and lectured widely on American, Mexican, and world music. He currently lives in Medford, Massachusetts.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Harper Collins
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Published on
Apr 24, 2012
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Pages
368
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ISBN
9780062018441
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Language
English
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Genres
Biography & Autobiography / Artists, Architects, Photographers
Music / Genres & Styles / Blues
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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Who was the greatest of all American guitarists? You probably didn’t name Gary Davis, but many of his musical contemporaries considered him without peer. Bob Dylan called Davis “one of the wizards of modern music.” Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead—who took lessons with Davis—claimed his musical ability “transcended any common notion of a bluesman.” And the folklorist Alan Lomax called him “one of the really great geniuses of American instrumental music.” But you won’t find Davis alongside blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite almost universal renown among his contemporaries, Davis lives today not so much in his own work but through covers of his songs by Dylan, Jackson Browne, and many others, as well as in the untold number of students whose lives he influenced.

The first biography of Davis, Say No to the Devil restores “the Rev’s” remarkable story. Drawing on extensive research and interviews with many of Davis’s former students, Ian Zack takes readers through Davis’s difficult beginning as the blind son of sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South to his decision to become an ordained Baptist minister and his move to New York in the early 1940s, where he scraped out a living singing and preaching on street corners and in storefront churches in Harlem. There, he gained entry into a circle of musicians that included, among many others, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Dave Van Ronk. But in spite of his tremendous musical achievements, Davis never gained broad recognition from an American public that wasn’t sure what to make of his trademark blend of gospel, ragtime, street preaching, and the blues. His personal life was also fraught, troubled by struggles with alcohol, women, and deteriorating health.

Zack chronicles this remarkable figure in American music, helping us to understand how he taught and influenced a generation of musicians.
Over the course of his long career, legendary bluesman William "Big Bill" Broonzy (1893–1958) helped shape the trajectory of the genre, from its roots in the rural Mississippi River Delta, through its rise as a popular genre in the North, to its eventual international acclaim. Along the way, Broonzy adopted an evolving personal and professional identity, tailoring his self-presentation to the demands of the place and time. His remarkable professional fluidity mirrored the range of expectations from his audiences, whose ideas about race, national belonging, identity, and the blues were refracted through Broonzy as if through a prism. Kevin D. Greene argues that Broonzy's popular success testifies to his ability to navigate the cultural expectations of his different audiences. However, this constant reinvention came at a personal and professional cost. Using Broonzy's multifaceted career, Greene situates blues performance at the center of understanding African American self-presentation and racial identity in the first half of the twentieth century.

Through Broonzy's life and times, Greene assesses major themes and events in African American history, including the Great Migration, urbanization, and black expatriate encounters with European culture consumers. Drawing on a range of historical source materials as well as oral histories and personal archives held by Broonzy's son, Greene perceptively interrogates how notions of race, gender, and audience reception continue to shape concepts of folk culture and musical authenticity.

Praised as "suave, soulful, ebullient" (Tom Waits) and "a meticulous researcher, a graceful writer, and a committed contrarian" (New York Times Book Review), Elijah Wald is one of the leading popular music critics of his generation. In The Blues, Wald surveys a genre at the heart of American culture. It is not an easy thing to pin down. As Howlin' Wolf once described it, "When you ain't got no money and can't pay your house rent and can't buy you no food, you've damn sure got the blues." It has been defined by lyrical structure, or as a progression of chords, or as a set of practices reflecting West African "tonal and rhythmic approaches," using a five-note "blues scale." Wald sees blues less as a style than as a broad musical tradition within a constantly evolving pop culture. He traces its roots in work and praise songs, and shows how it was transformed by such professional performers as W. C. Handy, who first popularized the blues a century ago. He follows its evolution from Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith through Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix; identifies the impact of rural field recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton and others; explores the role of blues in the development of both country music and jazz; and looks at the popular rhythm and blues trends of the 1940s and 1950s, from the uptown West Coast style of T-Bone Walker to the "down home" Chicago sound of Muddy Waters. Wald brings the story up to the present, touching on the effects of blues on American poetry, and its connection to modern styles such as rap. As with all of Oxford's Very Short Introductions, The Blues tells you--with insight, clarity, and wit--everything you need to know to understand this quintessentially American musical genre.
"There are no definitive histories," writes Elijah Wald, in this provocative reassessment of American popular music, "because the past keeps looking different as the present changes." Earlier musical styles sound different to us today because we hear them through the musical filter of other styles that came after them, all the way through funk and hip hop. As its blasphemous title suggests, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll rejects the conventional pieties of mainstream jazz and rock history. Rather than concentrating on those traditionally favored styles, the book traces the evolution of popular music through developing tastes, trends and technologies--including the role of records, radio, jukeboxes and television --to give a fuller, more balanced account of the broad variety of music that captivated listeners over the course of the twentieth century. Wald revisits original sources--recordings, period articles, memoirs, and interviews--to highlight how music was actually heard and experienced over the years. And in a refreshing departure from more typical histories, he focuses on the world of working musicians and ordinary listeners rather than stars and specialists. He looks for example at the evolution of jazz as dance music, and rock 'n' roll through the eyes of the screaming, twisting teenage girls who made up the bulk of its early audience. Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles are all here, but Wald also discusses less familiar names like Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, Mitch Miller, Jo Stafford, Frankie Avalon, and the Shirelles, who in some cases were far more popular than those bright stars we all know today, and who more accurately represent the mainstream of their times. Written with verve and style, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll shakes up our staid notions of music history and helps us hear American popular music with new ears.
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