Elijah Wald has taken quite a bit of time in the first 70 pages of his work to give his readers a broader perception of blues musicians from the 20s through the Pre-War era. His efforts are tied to his statement in the first chapter of his book, where he explains that his “working definition of ‘blues,’ at least up to the 1960s, would be: ‘Whatever the mass of black record buyers called “blues” in any period'” (7). His basic argument here is that before record companies needed a way to file their recorded music, the musical genres were much blurrier than they are today. In order to fulfill musical demand, the musicians we know primarily as blues musicians were, more likely than not, far more skilled through multiple genres of music than their recordings would suggest. The recording companies determined what was blues, ragtime, hillbilly, etc, for marketing purposes, and therefore only narrowly represent the music of the time.
Wald is led to the conclusion that musicologists, folklorists, and other academics have decided on a far too narrow definition of blues music based largely on these recordings. I’ll be frank, his analysis has caused me to re-think my definition of blues music (which fell closer to musicological) somewhat, but I still feel that despite the corporate-applied organizational system, while we have a mostly-reliable* musical genre filing system available to us, we can be aware of the larger musical blending, but still come to a definition of what blues music is and isn’t. As blues enthusiasts ourselves, where do we fall on this spectrum from a musicological definition to Wald’s definition? This, to me, is an important question for this group because I believe what we choose to define as blues music also largely determines musicality in our various blues idiom dances.
*I recognize here the issue of racial musical filing, which causes both white and black musicians genre-filing problems for blues in particular, but I think this is a separate issue that may deserve its own post. I refer here only to the musical structuring Wald discusses, not so much his discussion of race.
A big idea in the chapters for this week’s reading is that we, as modern blues enthusiasts, may be looking at the blues in a far too narrow scope. This continues in theme from last week’s reading, but adds a couple of interesting components: one, that many blues artists’ music bears no resemblance to or influence from hollers despite the fact that hollers and moans are often considered primitive blues; two, that cultural life in the Delta region was far different than is often portrayed, with far more migration, and far more awareness of musical culture outside of the region through the radio. The radio was a great way for people, and especially musicians, to keep up with the latest musical developments.
As Wald puts it, “The point is not that the common preconceptions about Robert Johnson’s musical world are entirely wrong, but rather that they are part of a much larger story” (101). I think it is particularly interesting that Wald includes a list of titles people listed as their favorite songs, and also that he talks about the popularity of Gene Autry: Muddy Waters’ repertoire was largely comprised of Autry’s hits. Does this widely varied list of tunes Wald mentions, especially the popularity of Autry tunes, change your image of the Delta, the musicians, and the music coming out of it? How? Is there a song Wald mentions that strikes you as something you might consider influential to blues development? Feel free to post songs and discuss them in the comments!
Elijah Wald, in this week’s reading, talks about his opportunity to introduce one of his blues history classes to many of the artists considered blues greats. He did so chronologically, and was caught off guard when they came to Robert Johnson, listened to the music, and his students were unimpressed. “What was so special about this?” they wondered (127). He recognized that he had allowed his students to approach Robert Johnson in the manner the music evolved instead of backwards through time, and it changed their perception of Robert Johnson and his importance. Wald states that Johnson’s “most celebrated talents, if we are to judge by the reports of his contemporaries, was his versatility, his ability to pick up new guitar parts as if by magic and to command a vast range of styles” (127), and this is what made him a great musician (and as we later read, a great traveling musician for other reasons).
Having read this anecdote and considered what people say Johnson’s strengths actually were, I wonder, how do we decide what makes a great musician? Recordings? Live performances? Their influence on other musicians? I know that I hadn’t ever heard of Johnson before I started studying the blues, and when I came to the music I was initially rather unimpressed: the music didn’t match the expectations I’d been led to have about him. It was only as I read about him and more carefully considered his music that I came to appreciate Johnson’s musical contributions, but I still think Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Lonnie Johnson rank higher on my list for important, influential, great blues musicians. Where do you place Johnson in importance compared to other blues musicians? Why?
Wald calls “Hellhound On My Trail” the “most anguished performance on record” for Johnson, and also his most poetic (171). He utilizes styles from Skip James to create this eerie sounding song. When Wald is discussing these songs, I think that what I like about the analysis is his discussion of how the song converses with other artists’ work. I believe he best explains this by saying, “Whether in sonnets or blues patterns, the best writers harness pre-determined forms to serve their meaning rather than finding such rules constricting” (169). For me, all art exists in conversation, and I enjoy learning more about that conversation between artists. But I also think that a large part of that conversation that can be forgotten is the conversation between the artist and the listeners. With that in mind, what in Johnson’s music, this song in particular, speaks to you? What do you make of the song? Do you have any additions you’d like to make to Wald’s analysis of the song?