Elijah Wald on Escaping the Delta
Ned Sublette is a longtime senior co-producer of Afropop Worldwide and author of “Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo” (Chicago Review Press, 2004). Ned interviewed Elijah Wald, our guest for the Afropop Worldwide’s Hip Deep program called “Escaping the Delta” talking about his provocative and fascinating book that challenges conventional notions of the place of Robert Johnson in American popular music history and fills in the story of the overlooked stars of the black entertainment world during and before Robert Johnson’s career. What follows is the complete transcript of the conversation between Sublette and Elijah.
Ned Sublette: I’m Ned Sublette, and I’m talking to Elijah Wald, author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and compiler of the companion CD Back to the Crossroads. Elijah, what kind of responses have you been getting from the blues scholars and the blues community about your book?
Elijah Wald: A lot of people in the rock press describe this as a controversial book. But the blues scholar community is overwhelmingly supportive. And a lot of what I’m saying is stuff that’s been being said by blues scholars among themselves for years. Just no one has done sort of a popular book pulling it all together and making it accessible.
NS: It seems to me that there’s a common-sense proposition behind this book, which is that the blues as it happened was part of a vast continuum of popular music.
EW: What this book really came out of was the idea that we’ve isolated this little thing that we call blues, but that black popular music has been a steadily evolving world, and blues wasn’t even one period of that, it was one kind of song that a lot of professional musicians sang who were also singing a lot of other things. And just due to the accidents of what got recorded, when they went to Mississippi and found some singer who could sing all the latest Broadway hits, and country western, and blues, all they recorded was blues, and we remember these people as blues singers.
NS: That wasn’t entirely by accident — there was a shaping force in this, which was the producers and what they chose to record.
EW: Sure, but you have to understand: a lot of people these days when they hear a sentence like that, start thinking racism – “they wouldn’t let poor black people sing anything but blues.” Really, it was a sound commercial choice. I mean, you had Bing Crosby and Sophie Tucker in New York to record “I’m Coming, Virginia,” so the fact that you had a black guitarist in Mississippi who could do that wasn’t really relevant, whereas if you wanted to get “Walkin’ Blues” by Son House or by Robert Johnson, the best place to get that was the Mississippi Delta and it made sense to focus on that there.
NS: Because they could do that better than anybody else.
NS: And of course, a lot of the tunes that we associate with a particular artist are not necessarily tunes that they composed or originated.
EW: Sure. Well, that’s something funny that we’ve now got into, after the Beatles and Bob Dylan, the idea that a singer is supposed to make up their own songs. And you have to remember: nobody was really thinking that way back in the 1920s and ’30s. The pop singers were singing things written by popular songwriters, and the blues singers were the same way. A lot more of the blues singers were doing their own material, but there was no special emphasis placed on that.
NS: At the same time, there is something about the blues that separated itself out from the other music, that made blues a separate genre of American music which we’ve redefined as time has passed.
EW: Blues has been a lot of separate things over the years. I mean, it first arrived as a pop style within black music, largely sung by women, largely sung in the vaudeville theaters and tent shows around the South, and they were these slow laments. Someone like Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith might sing “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” or “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and then they’d sing a blues, and that was sort of the sad, slow song of the period. And then over the years, those people who specialized in that got to be thought of as blues singers, and then street guitarists, like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson, who were doing a lot of that material, also got to be thought of as blues singers, and after a while we started thinking of it as a genre.
NS: And at the same time, we find in blues a great variety of style that goes quite beyond what we sometimes think of today as “blues.”
EW: Well, one thing that it’s a little hard for people sometimes now to get their head around is that what we now call “blues” back then was just called “race music.” It was a racial designation, much like “r&b” is today — you know, stuff that is typically sung by a black singer gets filed as r&b whether it’s rap or smooth ballads. And it’s all filed in this one place, though rap and smooth ballads have no resemblance to each other. And in the same way, in those days, Louis Armstrong singing “Stardust” was in the exact same record ad as Bo Carter singing “My pencil won’t write no more,” which is a Mississippi blues thing with guitar. And it would just be a split record ad: Louis Armstrong, “Stardust”; Bo Carter, “Lead Pencil Blues.” And those were the two big hits that week. We nowadays separate those things out, but at that point it was “race music.”
NS: How do you account for the transformation of the image of blues from a popular music to a heritage music?
EW: Well, that’s a long, long story. But it really started with people like Alan Lomax and John Hammond in the 1930s and 1940s, who were talking about “people’s music” and “folk music” and they’d found the Appalachian ballads as sort of the examples of the white country folk tradition and wanted a black tradition that was similar to that, and they sort of chose blues for that job . . .
EW: . . . which wasn’t completely appropriate, since blues was in fact a very new music at that point, unlike the Appalachian ballads, but it did make sense, because both of them [Hammond and Lomax] were interested in songs that talked about what was happening in people’s lives, and the white singers, if they were making up songs about current events, were making them up in the ballad tradition, and the black singers by and large, the songs that were talking about what was happening in their world, was blues.
Then of course there was the transformation with the Rolling Stones.
NS: Who seem to be more than anyone else responsible for how we see the blues today.
EW: Oh yeah. I think you can safely say that for most people today blues was invented by the Rolling Stones. For most people, our idea of blues is this dangerous outlaw music by guys who, you know, they dress kinda grungy and they play loud and . . .
NS: . . . had Satanic pacts . . .
EW: . . . had Satanic pacts, you wouldn’t want ’em to date your sister. And that’s really the Rolling Stones’ image. But the black blues singers’ image, back when blues was popular, was people in nice suits with pianos, and it was a very different image.
NS: There is today a black blues market and a white blues market.
EW: There always has been! I mean, white people, when they were buying blues, there was a time when they didn’t buy black singers so much. There was a time when a white blues buyer would tend to buy Jimmie Rodgers, would tend to buy Hank Williams. Who were blues singers. I mean, it’s silly to say that white blues singing was anything new. There were lots of white singers who specialized in blues. And then, straight through Elvis Presley. It really was the English who sort of romanticized the whole idea of black, black blues, and got white guys who not only were singing blues but were trying to sound like they were black guys.
NS: In the 19 th century we saw the emergence of the minstrel show, which was arguably the beginning of a recognizably American music. And today the minstrel show is remembered as something shameful, and blues is remembered as a dignified response to oppression, but many times you would find some kind of continuum between minstrel-show music and blues, no?
EW: In the music there was a lot of continuum. There were a lot of blues players who continued to do stuff in the minstrel mold, but that differentiation you’re making was already being made in the 1920s. That’s part of why blues hit. The blues era really sort of starts with W.C. Handy in 1912, and then with all the women who started recording in the 20s.
NS: And of course, W.C. Handy had been in Mahara’s Minstrel troupe not ten years before.
EW: And Ma Rainey had been in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and Louis Jordan, who was the biggest black star of the ’40s, had also started out in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Minstrel troupes kept playing long after what we think of as minstrel music was not what they were playing. But when blues hit, there was a real demand. You know, we’re talking about the period between World War I and World War II, and African Americans really coming into their own and asserting a separate identity. And blues was the sound of the new era, and minstrelsy was the old days. And obviously, there’s always musical continuity. But in terms of how people thought about it, there was a real split there. And the blues era really hit, sort of 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and what I at least mean by that term is just that during that period, any major black star was doing blues. Be it the Count Basie Band, be it Ellington, be it Billie Holiday, it’s always at the top of the black record sales.
In the old days, everyone who was playing music played blues. You had guitar players on the streets, you had piano players in the bars, and you had jazz bands in the theaters. And they all played blues. The Count Basie Band played blues, and Robert Johnson played blues.
But when rock and roll came in, you had this desire for roots. I mean, our idea about rock is that real rockers are guys who come out of the countryside, like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, in a sense the Rolling Stones. They haven’t gone to music school, and they’re playing this grungy roots music. And if you go backwards from there, looking for where that came from, you go back to Muddy Waters, and back from Muddy Waters to Robert Johnson, and back from Robert Johnson to Charley Patton. And that’s completely true! It’s just that in blues back in 1920 they weren’t looking forward to the Rolling Stones. You could just as easily start with india.arie or someone like that, and go back from there to Sam Cooke, and go back from Sam Cooke to Nat “King” Cole, and back from Nat “King” Cole to Leroy Carr, and back from Leroy Carr to Jelly Roll Morton and the W.C. Handy band, and it’s just as legitimate a history.
NS: The first album I ever bought – it was in 1959, I was eight – and it was A Date with Elvis, which was a collection of his early sides, which included “Milkcow Blues Boogie.” I listened to that record over and over and over and over. Of course, I didn’t know any other versions of the song. And it wasn’t until I picked up the companion CD, Back to the Crossroads, that goes with your book, that I became aware of the 1934 Kokomo Arnold version.
EW: That’s actually a perfect example of how people have forgotten what blues really was, because Kokomo Arnold was one guy with a slide guitar. He was raw. He was great. But his record, “Milkcow Blues,” was so big that shortly you had a cover of it by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and it stuck around for Elvis to be doing it. And if you’re looking for the roots of Robert Johnson, he did more songs based directly on “Milkcow Blues” than on anything else. Robert Johnson’s one hit, which was “Terraplane Blues” — the whole form of the song is based right on Kokomo Arnold’s “Milkcow.”
NS: You mentioned that name – Robert Johnson. And that takes us into the subtitle of your book and the whole second half of it: “Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.” You’ve got Robert Johnson on the cover of the book, his name is in the subtitle. What’s the deal?
EW: Well, there are a few different things that made me choose Robert Johnson to be the center of this book. One of them is that simply, he’s the only person most people today have heard of out of that whole blues world of the 1920s and 1930s, so it’s a natural way to bring people into that. But also, he’s the first major figure in blues who himself learned everything off of records. Most of what we hear in Robert Johnson is not what he learned from the people in his neighborhood. There are just a handful of songs like that. Mostly, he’s sitting down with records, learning guitar licks, learning vocal styles, picking up lyrics. And that means that when you listen to his work, it’s like a perfect entryway, a perfect path, into all the music that made up the blues scene of his day. He’s a perfect way to introduce the wider scene.
The other thing that’s interesting to me is this weird fact that now he’s the most famous blues artist of the 1930s, and in the 1930s he had almost no success whatsoever. So he’s a really good person to look at to understand how different the black blues world of 1936 was from the largely white blues world of 2004.
NS: Robert Johnson is the central figure in the mythology of the blues as it came to be cemented – really in the 1960s, no?
EW: Yeah, Robert Johnson became sort of the emblematic bluesman in part because of the music, which is spectacular, in part because of the variety of what he did, which is quite unusual for somebody who was just recording singles back at that time, and in part because of the image, the whole idea of this brilliant young guy who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, did two great recording sessions, and then was killed by a jealous husband before he was thirty. His work really shows the difference between what the black blues audience was hearing in this music in 1936 and what the largely white blues audience of the 21 st century is looking for.
NS: Now, you’ve compiled a number of tracks that hardly anyone today has ever heard of, with a few exceptions, of people who were I believe generally better known that Robert Johnson in those days – because of course Robert Johnson wasn’t very well known in those days – that show how Robert Johnson developed his repertoire out of other people’s music. There are a few people who are key figures here – I’m looking at Leroy Carr.
EW: Leroy Carr very simply was the most influential male blues singer of the first half of the 20 th century. It’s interesting that he’s not better remembered today.
NS: Nobody knows Leroy Carr today.
EW: But if you want to look at the people who covered Leroy Carr, you start with Robert Johnson and every blues singer of the time. Both Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters said that the first song they ever learned to sing was Leroy Carr’s “How Long How Long Blues.” The Count Basie Band covered him, the Ink Spots covered him, Ray Charles started out doing Leroy Carr, Sam Cooke did Leroy Carr. He simply was the dominant blues singer of the black entertainment world. But you know, he was a quite smooth singer. I sort of think of him as the black Bing Crosby. And that was very attractive for the blues audience of his time. But for the blues audience looking backward from the Rolling Stones and Stevie Ray Vaughn, that makes him sound sort of too smooth. He was a piano player, and he worked with a guitar player named Scrapper Blackwell. And he was capable of singing pop music. He recorded an Irving Berlin tune and some things like that, but his specialty were these slow blues ballads with beautiful evocative lyrics, something like “(In the Evening) When the Sun Goes Down,” which Robert Johnson took as the pattern for “Love in Vain.” And it’s interesting, because it’s not just that he took the tune. Johnson took this verse that Leroy Carr had in there, where he just sort of moans rather than singing words, and Johnson exactly replicated it, though coming from rural Mississippi tradition, I think Johnson injected more passion into it than Carr did. But you listen to it, and he’s just clearly sounding like Leroy Carr.
“How Long, How Long Blues”
NS: So talking about some of the other artists whose work shows up reflected in the repertoire of Robert Johnson, what about Peetie Wheatstraw?
EW: Peetie Wheatstraw’s an interesting one. He was, I think, the source of Robert Johnson’s few songs about the devil, because Peetie Wheatstraw advertised himself as “Peetie Wheatstraw, the devil’s son-in-law, the high sheriff from hell!” And just as these days, with rap, that was a very potent, sexy sort of image.
But if you listen to Robert Johnson singing – these days, if someone wants to make fun of Robert Johnson, they’ll do this sort of [falsetto:] ooh, well, well. And that’s Peetie Wheatstraw. Robert Johnson indeed mimicked that absolutely perfectly. But it’s sort of an interesting example of how differently people heard Robert Johnson in his own time and the way they hear him today. Because Peetie Wheatstraw was one of the biggest stars in blues. By 1935 or ’36 he was probably the best-selling blues singer in America. So when Robert Johnson did that “Ooh, well, well” on his records, every single person who was hearing him knew that he was doing Peetie Wheatstraw. But none of us today make that association.
One of the interesting things with Johnson and Peetie Wheatstraw is that he did some direct covers: I mean, things like Peetie Wheatstraw’s “King of Spades” turned into Robert Johnson’s “Little Queen of Spades,” which was just a direct answer song, just like they keep doing in pop music today. But you also have things like, in Peetie Wheatstraw’s “Police Station Blues,” he just, in the middle of it, he’s singing about something, I forget what: “Ooh, since you been gone.” And if you listen to it, I don’t think Robert Johnson did this on purpose, but in “Terraplane” he gets into this “Ooh well, since you been gone,” and he says exactly the same line, and he phrases it exactly the same way. And I don’t think, as I say, it was on purpose, I just think he had Wheatstraw so deep in his mind from listening to him so much that it had become part of his own voice.
NS: Well, and a lot of stuff that wound up in different people’s repertoires was stuff that was floating around, of indeterminate origin. You came up with this amazing instrumental version of this song that in Robert Johnson’s hands became “Four Till Late.”
EW: A lot of the interesting stuff of doing a book like this is just becoming conscious of how little we know. And you constantly find little reminders of the fact that the people you’re studying were living in a world a lot of which you don’t have. So, for example, the song “From Four Until Late,” which I associated in the book with Blind Blake, who was a very popular blues guitarist of that time, and that’s the association pretty much all blues scholars have made. After the book came out, somebody suddenly pulled up this recording of a song called “Four O’Clock Blues,” recorded by a Memphis trumpet player named Johnny Dunn in 1922, so fourteen years before Robert Johnson recorded “From Four Till Late,” fifteen years. And it’s clearly the same song. It has no lyric, but clearly around Memphis they were doing this song that Robert Johnson recorded as “From Four Till Late,” and we just didn’t happen to hear it. We aren’t in Memphis. But if you listen to Johnny Dunn’s version from 1922, it’s clearly the same song.
NS: And this scholarly commentary that you’ve produced, this gloss on Robert Johnson’s work, in the second half of your book and in the companion CD that you’ve made, it reminds me a little of the scholarly editions of Shakespeare, you know, where they show where Shakespeare took this from here and that from there, but still, there is somehow in these two recording sessions, this artist named Robert Johnson came into being and created a literature which seems to have outlasted the original sources in the public memory.
EW: The analogy to Shakespeare’s actually very good, because actually, a lot of people, when I say, Robert Johnson got this from here and that from there, they think I’m trying to tear him down. And everybody knows that when Shakespeare took a bunch of stuff from another source, by and large he improved on it. And in the same way, Robert Johnson clearly improved on a lot of his models. But the idea that Robert Johnson is better known than his models is an idea that really only holds good among white blues fans. If you go around black people – fans who are old enough to have any memory of any of this period – names like Kokomo Arnold and Peetie Wheatstraw and Leroy Carr still ring a lot more bells than Robert Johnson.
NS: Talk to me about Tampa Red.
EW: Tampa Red was sort of the flip side of Leroy Carr. Leroy Carr was the smooth balladeer, and Tampa Red was sort of – they used to call it “hokum,” fun music. He was doing a lot of dirty songs, a lot of upbeat, funny dance songs. And he wrote a thing – as far as I know, he wrote it – called “When I Take My Vacation in Harlem.” “To the sound of old Duke and old Calloway / We will sing, dance, and something until the break of day / I’ll be there with an armful of heaven / When I take my vacation in Harlem.” And that’s just sort of been written out of blues history, that the same guy who was the greatest, most influential slide guitarist of the blues era was also doing songs like that.
NS: I don’t believe we’ve talked about Lonnie Johnson yet.
EW: Well, Lonnie Johnson was the greatest guitar player in the blues era, and Robert Johnson’s particular hero. Robert Johnson did two songs, “Malted Milk,” and “Drunken Hearted Man,” where he is playing exactly Lonnie Johnson’s guitar part from “Life Saver Blues.” But he also is trying to sing exactly like Lonnie Johnson. He clearly really loved Johnson, and that was not unusual. Lonnie Johnson was a superstar. And, interestingly enough, also, the father of jazz guitar. I mean, Lonnie Johnson played and sang blues, but he also played with the Louis Armstrong band, he played with the Duke Ellington orchestra. And for someone like Robert Johnson, who was a young guy growing up in Mississippi, but with ideas of becoming a musical star, that was the dream! The dream wasn’t to play down-and-dirty slide guitar like Son House, who had never got beyond the Mississippi juke joints. The dream was to be Lonnie Johnson, and a huge national star in a nice suit.
“Life Saver Blues”
NS: Is it possible that we run the danger by fetishizing the word “blues” of losing sight of the fact that there is this musical essence that goes back in time?
EW: All of that music that we now call blues – it has roots in the South, it has roots that go back to the slave period, it has roots that go back to Africa. But if you interviewed anybody who was living in Mississippi in 1910 and 1920, and asked them when they first heard blues, at that time, those people, that generation, they did not talk about their parents in the fields, or their grandparents. They talked about the blues arriving on records by people like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. You talk to Son House, who taught Robert Johnson, and he says, “When I was growin’ up, wasn’t nothin’ pertainin’ to no blues.” Blues came in from the north, on records. Now that doesn’t mean it didn’t have lots of roots in the older music. But it was a new, hot pop style. And you actually talk to older musicians down there, they talk about how blues ruined the nice old music. How “We used to have all these pretty dance tunes, and then that blues came in and wiped it all out.”
NS: You came in with this work song that you found. What is that work song?
EW: Well, I don’t think those songs had names. But it’s a song that was recorded in Mississippi on Parchman State penitentiary in the 1940s. They call it “Makes a Long Time Man Feel Bad.” And its second verse is very clearly from the same verses that Robert Johnson used in his song, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down.” And, you know, you can listen to those back to back, and clearly, Robert Johnson is coming from the same tradition as these guys singing the work song. I would add, though, equally clearly, it’s related to what we think of as a white hillbilly tune, called “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” And all of this music was in the same area at the same time. And trying to pretend that it all moved in one direction, as if it started as a work song and then became a blues song with Robert Johnson and then became a hillbilly song isn’t really right. It was part of the common language.
And the same guys who were working at that work song, their fathers were mostly fiddlers – if they played music – and they were playing square dances. That’s what people forget, is that the fathers of all of the black musicians we think of as the blues stars were fiddle players if they were musicians. In fact, Big Bill Broonzy himself was a fiddle player who moved up to Chicago and learned to play guitar. And they played black square dances. And we’ve just forgotten that whole tradition. But that’s as much a part of blues as the work songs, and it also is as much a part of the inheritance from Africa, where fiddles were a very common instrument. I mean, the banjo is an African instrument! And looking at American Southern music and saying the African inheritance is the black work songs, not banjo playing, is a way of essentially rewriting history to say that all the slaves brought with them was their work songs, and not this involved, complicated instrumental tradition that we now think of as white hillbilly music, a lot of it, but they didn’t have that stuff in Ireland and England! And you know, we have to think of banjo playing as the African inheritance just as much as the work songs.
NS: You brought in a track that shows us just exactly how fiddle and mandolin, on one day when it was being recorded, anyway – worked in the blues.
EW: I actually brought a couple. You can listen to the Mississippi Sheiks, who were the most popular band in the Mississippi Delta in the delta blues days, and they were led by a fiddle player named Lonnie Chatmon, and they did a song called “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” which was so popular that it was recorded by white hillbilly bands, by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and by Howlin’ Wolf in an electric hit, and which Robert Johnson turns into “Come On In My Kitchen,” and that’s typical fiddle music, but they also played square dances. Then you listen to Son House, who was Robert Johnson’s teacher, and he does his version of “Walkin’ Blues,” which Robert Johnson recorded, and which a lot of people have since done. And he recorded that with himself on slide guitar, and a second guitar, a harmonica, and a guy playing mandolin, who also doubled on fiddle. That was very typical down there. American music, be it black or be it white, is absolutely affected each by the other, and country western music does not sound like Irish music, and blues does not sound like African music.
NS: Absolutely not.
EW: They both are very distinctively from the Southern United States.
NS: Well, also, this gets into the issue, that we have gotten into the habit of talking about “black music” as if it were something that happened in isolation.
EW: Well, absolutely. There is a tendency to think about the music as white and black because the music marketing was done as white and black.
NS: This was in the days of segregated society.
EW: Absolutely. And you know, once they were recording the records, they put the white records in the hillbilly line, and the black records in what was then called the “race” line. And one of the funny things is, when a black performer played something that sounded like hillbilly music, they simply issued it in the hillbilly line and didn’t tell anybody that the performers were black. And there were a number of instances of that. And when they stopped wanting to do that, they simply didn’t let the black performers who played hillbilly music record that stuff. And that’s not just back in the 20s. Bobby “Blue” Bland, who was the most successful blues singer of the 60s and 70s, still says in interviews that he wanted to be a country western singer and there just wasn’t a market for that.
NS: And Ray Charles? Didn’t he start out singing country in Florida?
EW: A lot of black people did stints with country bands. Ray Charles didn’t exactly start out that way, but it was his first professional gig. Just because that happened to be a band that would hire him. And that’s been true of a lot of people. Brownie McGhee, the blues singer, his father played with hillbilly bands. But you know, I worked for a long time with Howard Armstrong, who was a perfect example of this. Howard played mostly fiddle and mandolin, though he also could fool around on a lot of other instruments. And he recorded back in the early 30s, playing what we would now call ragtime blues. And if he had died back then, we would never have known that he could play anything else. But the fact is, Howard could play Mexican music, he could play a full evening of Polish dances, a full evening of Italian dances, cause he grew up in Tennessee, and there were a lot of Poles and Italians working in the fields there. So those were just regular gigs. He could play all the latest pop tunes, he could play the square dance repertoire, and of course he could play blues. But to call him a blues singer, or a blues player, is completely inaccurate and drove him completely nuts.
NS: You accompanied him, right?
EW: I worked with him quite a lot. It was actually an interesting paradox. There were all these jobs from the U.S. – I forget which agency it was that was sending him around as part of a group called Martin, Bogan and Armstrong, who were the last of the black string bands. And then Martin and Bogan died, and they tried to team him up with these black blues players who didn’t know how to play diminished and augmented 7 th chords, and who didn’t want Howard telling – you know, Howard used to say, “Oh, they get me up with these guys, I tell ’em how to make the right chord. They say, ‘You play your instrument, I’ll play mine.’ I tell them, ‘I’m trying to tell you how to play yours.'” Whereas, he could get some young white kid like me, and I’d never played an augmented seventh either, but when Howard said, “No, that should be an augmented seventh, and it goes like this,” and showed me how to finger it, I was willing to take his instructions. So he started putting together bands of players like me. But interestingly enough, some of the concert dates would not take him if he had a backup band of young white guys, because they wanted something “authentic” – but what was authentic from his point of view was playing with musicians who knew the damn chords for the tunes he wanted!
I worked with Howard Armstrong for about three years. He died a couple of years ago at the age of 96. And, I mean, he was right on top of things up until the end. I think he gave his last concert six months before that. And he’s remembered as a musician, but he was a painter, he did this beautiful calligraphy, he spoke a number of languages, and he was one of the funniest, most articulate storytellers I’ve ever known.
NS: It seems that a lot of people today think of the banjo in association with white American music.
EW: Well, you know, what’s happened is this streamlining that the record companies did, where you’ve got the hillbilly records on one side and the race records on the other side. And you have to understand: think about the old South, and in 1920, ’25, when this started happening, a lot of white people were nostalgic for the good old days. And black people were not at all nostalgic for the good old days of the South. So as a result, the black listening audience was going for the newest, latest sounds – which was blues – and the white audience was going for what were called “old-fashioned tunes,” which were the old dances, the fiddle and banjo stuff, but that doesn’t mean that that had been white music.
The fact is, if you look at the fiddle and banjo repertoire, what we think of as old-time country music, anything from a third to a half of it comes out of black tradition. “Old Joe Clark” is black, “Sally Gooden” – an awful lot of that repertoire. And there were black square dances. Leadbelly recorded square dance calls. And people have just forgotten that part of it. The other thing is that, at white dances, a lot of the musicians would be black. A lot of the bands would be mixed. If you got up to a country area, the band was whoever could show up that night. And that’s not just true in the hills. In Mississippi, the reason that we have heard of Mississippi John Hurt is that they recorded a white fiddle-and-guitar duo called Narmour and Smith, from right in that area. They did a thing called “Carroll County Blues.” And after they’d finished, the record company said, “Anyone else in this area we should record?” And the fiddler said, “Well, yeah, when the guitar player can’t make it, there’s this old – ” he probably said “colored guy” – “who plays guitar for me.” And that was Mississippi John Hurt, and that’s why he got recorded.
NS: “Before music was segregated”?
EW: Before music was segregated! I used to do a class with that title. And it was a self-consciously provocative title. But it’s true. The world was segregated, but the music wasn’t. In Louisiana, the first major Cajun stars, one of the big bands, was Dennis McGee and Amédé Ardoin. A white guy and a black guy. Now Amédé Ardoin was not allowed to dance at the white dances, but play accordion? Sure. And I should say, the segregation was not the same everywhere in the South. In a lot of areas, obviously, it was very strong. But you know, I had a friend who was a black blues player in southern Virginia who, when he was growing up, said, “We all used to go to the same dances and dance together and drink out of the same jug.” He was talking at that point about the 20s and the 30s.
NS: I’ve said all my life that in the ’50s in Louisiana we had segregated society but integrated radio.
EW: Not to mention some bedrooms.
NS: Not to mention some bedrooms. But the radio –
EW: Well, the radio was a huge musical integrator once it arrived, and so were phonograph records. I mean, the thing you have to remember when I say that white people were nostalgic for the good old days and black people were listening to new stuff, that also means that white people were listening to Mississippi John Hurt, who, by and large, record collectors will tell you, John Hurt records were found in white homes, not in black homes, ’cause it sounded like old 19 th century music. Whereas Jimmie Rodgers or Gene Autry you would find very often in black homes, because it was a new, hip style. When Muddy Waters was first recorded by Alan Lomax, Lomax took down a list of Muddy’s repertoire. There are seven Gene Autry songs that Muddy was doing, more than by any other artist in Muddy’s repertoire. He didn’t record any of them. “When my spurs go jingle-jangle-jingle.” “Take me back to my boots and saddle.” And that was very typical for that region. I mean, Gene Autry – anywhere in rural America, I don’t care if you were Mexican or black or French, you were watching cowboy movies and you were singing Gene Autry songs.
NS: When you say 19 th century music, what are you talking about?
EW: Well, obviously, we can’t hear much 19 th century music. Some did get recorded, but not a lot of rural music. But what did get recorded were a lot of guys who were in the 1920s or the 1930s already in their 50s, 60s, or 70s. And you listen to Uncle Dave Macon, the star of the Grand Ole Opry – now there’s a funny story about him, because John Jackson, the Virginia blues singer, when he was asked about the Grand Ole Opry, and they mentioned DeFord Bailey as the only black performer there, he said, “Well, what about Uncle Dave Macon?” And he had just heard it on the radio. He always assumed Uncle Dave Macon must be black. ‘Cause he was Uncle Dave, and he was playing that old banjo plantation repertoire, that was in fact largely an African-American repertoire. And there are a number of recordings like that. In Mississippi they recorded the Hemphills, who were playing what had been played at black country dances back in the 1880s and 1890s, and who talked about blues as that nasty modern music that came in and ruined everything.
NS: I want to ask you about another figure, a figure you mention on the very first page of the book, someone you knew: Dave Van Ronk.
NS: What did you learn from Dave Van Ronk that shows up in this book?
EW: Boy, what didn’t I learn from Dave Van Ronk? I’ve just finished putting together Dave’s memoirs of the folk-blues revival. And he really – he taught me guitar, but he taught me a lot of how to think about this music. He knew a lot of these musicians personally. And it always bothered him that people thought of the old blues singers as museum exhibits, rather than as people. He kept saying, you know, “When I would run into someone like Skip James, the conversation wouldn’t be, ‘What was it like in Mississippi in 1931?’ the conversation would be ‘Oh, where did you play in Philadelphia? Did you get your full pay? Did they take decent care of you? How was the place they had you staying?'” You know, they were working musicians, these guys were professionals.
There’s an interesting sidelight on Dave Van Ronk, though, cause I dedicate my book to him, saying it was based all on ideas that he formed the foundation of, and Bob Dylan has just put out this book Chronicles, where he talks about getting an acetate of that first Robert Johnson LP, and running right over to Dave Van Ronk’s and putting it on, and saying, isn’t this the greatest thing? And Dave saying, “Ah, he’s a strong singer, but it’s all pretty derivative. Here, let me play you Leroy Carr.” So it’s interesting, it really was true. Even back in ’60, ’61, he liked Robert Johnson’s work, but he had a much better sense of the bigger world in which it fitted.
NS: You just reminded me of something we didn’t get into yet – the role of this one particular LP in establishing Robert Johnson.
EW: Well, in 1961, there were virtually no early blues records available. And those few were on tiny little collector labels that you couldn’t find anywhere. And then Columbia Records brought out this album called King of the Delta Blues Singers, of Robert Johnson, and it changed a lot of people’s lives. I mean, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, still talk about the first time they heard that record. Bob Dylan learned how to write listening to that, and Eric Clapton learned how to play guitar. So Robert Johnson’s influence in the 60s and from then on stems from that record and is immense.
NS: You told a wonderful story in the book about Dave Van Ronk and Muddy Waters.
EW: [laughs]. Oh boy. Yeah, one of the things people forget these days about blues, because we have this idea that it’s this dark, mysterious, dangerous, Rolling Stones kind of music, is that a lot of it was meant to be funny. And just like rap today, a lot of the most violent lines were meant to be funny. And there is a story that Dave Van Ronk told me, about going to a blues festival up in New England. He arrived late, and didn’t know who else was on the bill. And he finished his set with a version of “Hoochie Coochie Man,” which he did – you know, full macho performance, shouting, you know, the whole bit. And he walked off stage and there was Muddy Waters, who had originally done the song. And Dave sort of, you know, cringed. But Muddy went over to him and said, “That was very nice, son.” Then he paused, and said, “But you know – that’s supposed to be a funny song.”
I think one of the useful ways, if you want to understand what blues was in the ’20s and ’30s, the way to do that is to think about these days and rap music. Because when people talk about, you know, “was it folk or was it pop?” A lot of people resent some of what I say, saying “No, he’s saying it’s pop, it really was folk music.” It’s like rap! I mean, rap has as deep folk roots as any music could possibly have. And yet, we’re really conscious of the fact that when we listen to Snoop Dogg, he isn’t some back-country folksinger. And that’s exactly what blues was in 1930. It was a deeply rooted music. But it was also the hippest sound of its time.
NS: By the way, everybody go out and pick up Elijah Wald’s previous book – Narcocorridos, the best book about contemporary popular Mexican music you can find. And he’s about to go out to Los Angeles to work on your next project, which is?
EW: I’m interested in writing about the Mexican reconquest of the United States. I’m for it.
NS: About the politics, or the music?
EW: About a bit of both. About the politics, about the reality, about what we might expect to be happening, but also about the music. I’m really interested in the banda-rap thing, a big thing in L.A. now, people rapping over accordions and brass bands.
NS: Thank you very much, Elijah Wald.
EW: Thank you for having me.