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Building the church of holler and moan

Whose blues is it anyway? On his first trip to the Mississippi Delta, Elijah Wald found himself performing a Robert Johnson song at the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. He reckoned that the members wouldn’t care for the old blues sound, much less have heard of his idol. But he didn’t expect their response: unmitigated glee. Taking for granted the musical strategies that Wald had spent years mastering, they attended instead to Johnson’s hilarious double-entendres in “Terraplane Blues”:

Motors in a bad condition

You gotta have these batteries charged

But I’m cryin please

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Please don’t do me wrong

Who been drivin’ my Terraplane now for you

Since I’ve been gone

Instead of a blasted prophet, they heard a vivacious entertainer. Where Wald gleaned tragedy, they spied fun.

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In “Escaping the Delta,” Wald places Johnson in his proper context, allowing us to hear him as he would have been heard in 1936. More bravely, he confronts the generations of White Blues Boys (most of them boys, most of them white, including everyone from Eric Clapton to the street-corner slide guitarist) who commandeered and reconfigured the blues.

In the process, they upturned hierarchies and banished to invisibility artists they deemed frivolous, artists who had frequently been the African American audience’s favorites. In their place, the new fans anointed singers like Johnson, who would come to personify the blues, with millions of albums sold and even a postage stamp bearing his image. The blues audience of his time barely knew him. The pop audience today hardly knows anyone else.

A professional musician and the author of “Josh White: Society Blues,” Wald wrote this book largely because a “more polished, professional approach has been disrespected by generations of blues writers in search of wild Delta primitivism.” Yet he shares these writers’ enthusiasm, and his book also challenges himself: How could he have missed so much splendor? In transforming “a music notable for its professionalism and humor” into an existential lament, had the blues fans gotten everything wrong? Were they guilty, terrible to admit, of provincial bad taste?

Wald’s view of American culture is wonderfully bold and bracing. He celebrates a time before there were categories, when sounds had yet to be codified, when everybody heard everything. Did you know, for instance, that country fiddling was largely based on jigs and reels mastered in slavery (and originally associated with the Irish, who, like their musical fellow travelers the Jews, were not considered much whiter than slaves)? Or that B.B. King loved hillbilly star Jimmie Rodgers, while Muddy Waters grew up listening to Gene Autry?

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That’s not all Wald presents. Did you also know that Robert Johnson, when not dodging hellhounds, liked to sing “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”? That a decade before Elvis crash-landed on all the charts, Louis Jordan’s jump blues were No. 1 on the Country Hit Parade? Or that Johnny Shines, Johnson’s singing partner, boasted of their skill at playing “the better type of stuff”?

The first blues recording, one learns, was made by a white man; the first Queen of the Blues was a white woman. In the 1920s, the earliest black blues stars were robust divas who had apprenticed in vaudeville or the circus. Country blues, the sound identified with Johnson and with Wald’s favorite, Skip James, was recorded later and never matched the popularity of the other forms. Nobody is quite willing to say which came first, country blues or city blues. Simply because guitar (country) blues sounds more primitive doesn’t mean that it preceded city blues, which employed instruments like piano, cornet and saxophone. My own guess is that the development of the country blues in the 1930s parallels what was going on in black churches, where old forms of religious music were updated to conform to new aesthetic demands. Except in the case of country blues, the updated form actually involved a return to the roots of holler and moan.

Though blues scholars have canonized the field holler, I’m not sure of its influence. It wasn’t widely sung, even in the workplace, and the example cited by Wald, a 1947 jailhouse lament by a man named Tangle-Eye, is a secular adaptation of the old hymn “I Wonder Will We Ever Meet Again,” sung with the byzantine melisma universally identified with a church moan. That moan usually takes the form of a hum, though it can also be an “ooh,” “ah,” “oh” and “hey,” and it can be expressed in guttural tones or high falsetto. When slurred moans are introduced into spoken and sung words, the result is a hallowing of language, a transcendent state. As with the donning of a scarf or yarmulke, everything becomes solemn, sacred.

Country blues shares gospel’s habits of rhythm, harmony and verbal repetition. In both forms, rhetoric aspires to seduce as well as persuade. That’s why, in both forms, verses are interchangeable, and straight storytelling is disregarded in favor of the moment’s prompting, a cascade of epiphanies -- not all of them related, but all performed with the same intensity. When a great singer slur-moans her words, harmony is infused with emotion. No other sound so simple and ubiquitous can also be so deeply, immediately serious. Robert Johnson takes this for granted, which is why his best performances were extended moans.

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Little is known about Johnson, and Wald spends few pages on his biography. He was born in any of four years from 1907 to 1911, most likely in Hazelhurst, Miss., and he died, perhaps murdered by a cuckolded husband, in August 1938. We know that he was raised in the church, that his idol was an ex-shouting preacher named Son House, that he had a lazy eye and that, according to Shines, he had “sharp, slender fingers that fluttered like a trapped bird.” We are fascinated to learn that Shines and Johnson traveled far from Mississippi -- to Canada, where they sang in a gospel quartet, and to New York, where they sang in the streets. We seem to know that Johnson was admired but not revered, a good sport and a loner, a ladies’ man and a mama’s boy; that he could move a crowd to tears but could not dazzle them with “clowning” shenanigans (play guitar with his teeth or between his legs). That he invented almost nothing.

Wald has produced, for the Shanachie label, a forthcoming musical anthology called “The Roots of Robert Johnson.” Even more than his own analyses, this album demonstrates that Johnson was a blues chameleon who mixed and matched the sounds of all the then current stars. These included men like Peetie Wheatstraw (a pianist-singer whose vocals were dense with yodels and metrical variety), Kokomo Arnold (a virtuoso slide guitarist whose slashing baritone could soar to a mezzo-soprano high), Leroy Carr (a pianist whose vocals linked Louis Armstrong’s audacity to a Bing Crosby croon, and whose intonation would be echoed by R.H. Harris, Sam Cooke’s gospel mentor) and Son House (whose huge voice sounds newly sprung from the church: After singing the line “Lord have mercy on my wicked soul” twice, he replaces the anticipated third line -- the traditional B to his A-A -- with a wordless moan.) They’re all unmistakably present, Johnson was that shameless.

But why not? Like any folk singer, Johnson claimed a right to every offshoot of his idiom. And he had confidence born of good guitar technique -- distinguished by his pioneering use of the bass shuffle, later intrinsic to rock ‘n’ roll -- and a magnificent voice. For blues fans, as Wald constantly reminds us, singing and not instrumentation has always been the focus of attention. Johnson had many registers: He could sing first tenor without too much strain, drop to a well-supported baritone, growl like a preacher, sail into falsetto, employ comical voices when performing vaudeville hokum and manage to sing lead or background parts so distinctly that you might imagine two men standing at the microphone.

Wald knows that, by contextualizing Johnson, he risks demystifying -- even demoting -- him. So be it. If we end up valuing Johnson less, we acquire a greater purchase on musical history.

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Take one of his most famous songs, “Come On in My Kitchen.” The melody had been popularized a few years earlier by the Mississippi Sheiks in “Sitting on Top of the World.” On this astonishing record, a beautiful fiddle sound straddles the territory between country music and blues, looking back to a tradition of black string band music and forward to Nashville’s signature yoking of blue notes and hymns. The vocal and instrumental are both plushly legato and ironically deadpan, since each verse depicts someone at the bottom of a pit insisting that he’s “sitting on top of the world.” The melody was next employed by Tampa Red, the most influential of all slide guitarists, in “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way,” another lyrical instance of whistling past a graveyard:

When I was sick down on my bed,

my friends forgot me, thought I was dead.

Red’s pianist was “Georgia Tom,” who soon quit the blues field to become Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of modern gospel music, in which his streamlined blues-based ballads found immediate acceptance. By then, the blues ballad was a Tin Pan Alley staple: Irving Berlin composed more than a few.

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Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen” is a much deeper performance, perhaps his finest. It is also his most churchy. He begins the recording with two moaned lines and then sings “You better come on in my kitchen because it’s going to be raining outdoors.” He employs a growling tone that immediately, almost shockingly, mimics the hugely popular gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson. The preaching tactics could be a light-voiced attempt to duplicate Son House’s huge sound, but I think the echo of Blind Willie is deliberate. (Blind Willie was never a blues singer, and the attempt to recruit him as such in the recent PBS celebration of the blues -- why call him a blues singer? well, because the producers think of him that way -- was inaccurate and even, by the standards he upheld, offensive.) Johnny Shines says that “Come On in My Kitchen” could move grown men and women to tears, as any passionate, gospel-rooted performance ought. Wald notes that the verses are fungible and generic. I notice that the penultimate verse invokes a woman in trouble, abandoned by her friends, and that the last verse summons a vision of universal storm. Johnson recorded a second take of the song, and though not as intense a meditation, it ends with a verse about a motherless child.

These were the customary themes of Baptist sermons, invariably the notes that got closest to the people. Johnson’s kitchen becomes a sanctuary, the ark of safety in a desperate season. Two other Johnson masterpieces, “Walking Blues” and “Preaching the Blues,” both previously recorded by Son House, use the same vocal devices. This leads me to propose that rather than selling out to the devil, House and Johnson were extending the varieties of worship in moaned form, enacting the parable of the Prodigal Son without any impious motives.

Johnson died in 1938. His records had been minor regional hits and were soon forgotten. Wald isn’t even convinced that he would have stuck with his original sound: With his shuffling rhythms, he might have become another T-Bone Walker; with his merging of ballad, gospel moan and blues, he might have become the original Ray Charles. Either way, by 1941 the era of acoustic singer-guitarists had drawn to a close. Wald lists the selections found on jukeboxes located on a huge Mississippi plantation. There’s virtually nothing close to “down-home.” The most popular blues was “Going to Chicago” by the Count Basie Band featuring Jimmy Rushing. There were several swing bands performing blues tunes. The singer-guitarist represented most often was gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe, with a terrific version of “Stand by Me,” a Thomas A. Dorsey gospel blues.

White fans may be shocked by this transfer of loyalties; Wald himself is bemused. But since I like many of the selections and especially admire the Rosetta Tharpe number, I would argue that Mississippians had proved themselves quite as hip as audiences anywhere, town or city. The program they got with happened to be a great one; it was one of pop music’s finest hours.

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For the next 20 years, blues remained central to black music, whether it was called “race,” “rhythm and blues” or “soul.” Wald surveys the many talents who updated the form, thrilling their audiences only to be dismissed as too “light,” too “popular,” too “commercial” by white blues fans. He then does something very interesting as he traces the development of these fans’ tastes to three WASP socialites, Carl Van Vechten, John Hammond and Alan Lomax, who were drawn to black music for vastly different reasons. Van Vechten may have had the purest aesthetic and the most visceral agenda: His love of the form coincided with his attraction to black men. Lomax was the academic savant and the political maven. But Hammond, the legendary record producer, would be the most linked with Johnson because he had invited him to perform at the epochal concert “From Spirituals to Swing,” not realizing that the singer had died, and because Johnson’s records would be reissued under his auspices in 1961.

Like many a committed fan, Hammond was fiercely arbitrary. His insistence on the comparative purity of one talent over another -- and it was usually a battle -- was incorrigible. Count Basie’s band made the cut, and Duke Ellington’s mostly did not. (Hammond loathed the musical ambitions of arrangers like Fletcher Henderson, since he thought the blues provided inspiration enough.)

These men set the tone for later white fans. But even at their most egregious, none of them made the kind of mistakes Wald proceeds to catalog. Time and again, the guys who share his “tastes and predilections” got things backward. They ranked the guitar well above the piano, although, with its shimmering overtones, that instrument has liberated the most inspired blues, jazz and gospel vocalists. Even their guitar hero Muddy Waters, interviewed in 1941, cited as his favorite artists the singer-pianist Walter Davis and Fats Waller, while observing that black music’s superiority to white lay in its “harmony in the blues line,” by which he meant voice and piano. (Judging by his long association with Otis Spann, Waters’ appreciation for the piano sound did not diminish.) The new fans trumped the old standards. Where once the singer had been the star, now it was the accompanist. Singing itself was demoted; huge, opulent voices were dismissed as “ornate,” “pretentious” or, in a recent vile idiom, “gay.” Authenticity, “realness,” was all.

Artistic compromise, particularly if it involved a showmanly pandering to the crowd, was beneath contempt. The judgments have been merciless ... and selective. I recall a New York Times critic’s review of a Rolling Stones concert in which he knocked the effervescent pianist Billy Preston as a “showboat” while somehow overlooking the performance mode of the group’s star.

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Women suffered the most, all the more because, until Johnson, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey had been the most famous blues singers. On a few recordings, Johnson scaled the expressive heights, as did Skip James, once or twice (though it’s hard to imagine his wispy wail ever scoring with black listeners, who never exhibited a taste for the ineffable). But I am far more moved by, say, Smith’s 1926 recording of “Gin House Blues.” When she sings

It takes a good smart woman these days

to hold her man

when these gals have got so many different ways

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the moaned slur she imposes on “hold” conveys a power and melancholy that make most bluesmen sound like babes in the wood. In my experience (I started attending the Apollo Theater when I was in junior high school over 40 years ago), the blues singers the people talked back to most were Dinah Washington and Big Maybelle.

Wald reminds us of the huge investment that fans of the last 50 years have placed in whatever -- music, films, comics, sports -- cuts to their marrow. The evolution of taste has become an index of the psyche. You can dispute folks’ politics or theology and still drink with them. But say, for example, as our finest composer-critic, Ned Rorem, recently did, that Bob Dylan’s music is “worthless,” and, well, you’re on your own.

Inevitably history continues to be rewritten. Robert Christgau, the veteran rock critic, recently drew a parallel between Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, ignoring the difference in age between the two or the fact that Elvis pretty much invented his style on the spot while Cooke arrived on the pop scene the acknowledged master -- albeit in gospel -- of his. Christgau also observed that Elvis had many male acolytes, while Cooke was simply a “heartthrob.” Indeed he was that, but he was also the biggest influence on his genre: All the soul men tried to sing like him.

Out of such blithe error and dialectical conceit flows the received wisdom. That is, until an Elijah Wald simply looks at the music on its own terms, judging it by its own criteria. Against the charms of po-mo bricolage, he offers the superior rewards of close listening. In the context of most writing about popular music, “Escaping the Delta” is more than a tonic. It’s champagne, Muddy Waters’ favorite drink.

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