<B>The blues ain't what they used to be</B>The old argument used to be over whether white folks could play the blues. In his new book, <B>Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues</B>, musician/scholar Elijah Wald threatens to stir things up even more with a provocative question: were the great blues musicians really blues musicians after all?Of course the blues exists; it is, in fact, the foundation of modern popular music. Scores of exquisite recordings have been made within this style. These facts are self-evident and so, it would seem, is the recognition that performers as diverse as Ma Rainey, B.B. King, Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin' Hopkins and Howlin' Wolf embody the blues with every note they sang or played.
Yet Wald argues that none of these was only a blues artist. Thanks to the tendency to romanticize those who played the blues, the established (i.e., white) media have obscured the truth that virtually all of these artists also played country, jazz, sentimental pop favorites and other styles they were more similar to today's wedding bands than to their images as intuitive and unschooled primitives.
Wald makes a two-pronged case. First, he pores through interviews, African-American newspapers and other sources to create a complex image of blues professionals and their audiences: Muddy Waters' enthusiasm for Gene Autry songs, the astonishing popularity of Lawrence Welk among black rural listeners, and blues guitar icon Lonnie Johnson's insistence on performing "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" after being "rediscovered" by white folklorists in the '60s, all suggest that, as Wald dryly observes, "The world is not a simple place."That point made, he applies his research to the case of Robert Johnson, specifically because the brilliant singer/guitarist's murder at the age of 27 made him a prime target for myth making. Wald's analysis of Johnson's music distracts as much at it supports his thesis, but his description of the young man's professionalism, upscale fashion sense and rapid grasp of studio technique makes it clear that earning a living was a more pressing concern for Johnson than living the life of a folk icon or, worse, a benign ethnic stereotype.
<I>Robert L. Doerschuk, former editor of</I> Musician <I>magazine, writes from Nashville.</I>