Blues Scholar Elijah Wald Offers an Alternate History of Delta Blues

In the conventional history of the Delta blues, nobody is more important than Robert Johnson. Johnson is widely regarded as the player who shaped early, primitive country folk styles, borrowed from Charley Patton, Skip James, and Son House, into what we now recognize as "the blues." His influence supposedly runs from the Delta up the Mississippi River to Chicago, where Muddy Waters electrified it, and then directly to the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, who hailed Johnson when his 1930s recordings were first made widely available in the '60s.

The guitarist and writer Elijah Wald, however, has an entirely different view of the history of the blues. In his 2004 book Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, Wald presents a convincing argument that Johnson was an immensely talented but largely unknown performer when he died in 1938. His influence and importance, Wald says, have been overstated by white scholars and musicians who like to think of the blues as a dark, alien, and exotic form, rather than as one of many genres of commercial pop that preceded rock 'n' roll. (Wald's most recent book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll, offers a similarly provocative take on the history of pop music since the '60s.)

"All of us who know the field knew that Robert Johnson was a commercial failure and was virtually unknown," Wald says from his home in Boston. "We knew that the big stars were Bumblebee Slim and Peetie Wheatstraw. The adjustment was actually sitting down and listening to those guys and trying to figure out why people preferred that to what Robert Johnson was doing. That was the reality, and I wanted to find out why reality was the way it was.

"All of the early blues is fringe music now—most people don't listen to it. But it's important to remember that that stuff was once popular. People played it to appeal to the opposite sex and dance and get laid. And haunting, desperate music doesn't really fill that. ... I'm not saying that my history is better or more correct. I think it's important to show that there are alternate stories. My blues book may seem like a corrective to Robert Palmer's Deep Blues, but if I was going to recommend one book on the blues to somebody, I'd recommend his instead of mine."

One of the examples Wald briefly refers to in Escaping the Delta is Howard Armstrong, the East Tennessee-born fiddler and mandolin player whose life and career will be celebrated this weekend by Wald and dozens of other performers at the Louie Bluie Music and Arts Festival in Caryville. Wald accompanied Armstrong for several years in the late '90s when both lived in Boston.

Armstrong was born in 1909 in LaFollette; he became a professional musician in Knoxville while he was in his teens and in 1929 formed the Tennessee Chocolate Drops with his brother Roland and Carl Martin. Like the more famous Mississippi Sheiks, the Chocolate Drops—and the later combo Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, featuring guitarist Ted Bogan—played a wide range of music, from blues to hillbilly music, jazz, and popular hits, depending on their audience. After World War II, Armstrong moved to Chicago and then Detroit, where he worked in an auto factory. The folk revival of the 1960s brought renewed attention to Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, helping to restart their performing careers. They played together until Martin died in 1979, and after that Armstrong continued to perform on his own until his death in 2003. He met Wald after he moved to Boston in 1996. The partnership also helped Wald form his ideas about the history of the blues.

"Howard was not a blues player," he says. "He was capable of playing blues, just as he was capable of playing damn near anything. But he was marketed as a blues player because that's a market that existed in the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Now, with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, people are beginning to understand—the Chocolate Drops are named after Howard's band, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops—but nobody really understands. They still play a traditional country repertoire. The overwhelming majority of what Howard played was pop music. [George Gershwin's] ‘Lady Be Good' was his theme song, it was always his theme song. And he sang ‘Chinatown, My Chinatown' in Chinese."

Wald argues that Armstrong's range as a musician was typical—"This was simply what was required of any musician who wanted to make a good living and take the variety of jobs that might be available," he writes in Escaping the Delta—but he also emphasizes that Armstrong was anything but ordinary as a player.

"He was not in any way a primitive country player," he says. "He taught me the augmented seventh chord. A lot of old guys had their weird country chord names, but Howard was not that way. He knew chords the way jazz guys know chords. ...I don't even know what to call what he played. You don't hear his sound anywhere. I haven't heard anybody who sounds like Howard."