Author Elijah Wald knows that Robert Johnson never sold his soul.

Crossroads Blues 

Author Elijah Wald knows that Robert Johnson never sold his soul.

Picture Robert Johnson: a solitary figure out on the crossroads, just before midnight, waiting to meet the devil so he can trade his soul for the ability to play guitar. Now forget all that, because it's a load of crap.

Elijah Wald, author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, will tell you that to your face when he comes to Unity Temple on Thursday.

That's not the only myth Wald is looking to dispel with his newest book, which is, despite Johnson's prominence in the title, not a biography. Wald's look at Johnson's genre straddles the line between thesis and blog. As he traces the birth and growth of the blues, he also reminisces about his own blues history. As knowledgeable as he is, though, Wald admits that writing the book was a great learning experience.

Wald explores Johnson's recordings and traces their origins back to the once-famous bluesmen who came before him, playing the same scene.

"The book really emerged from wondering why, if Robert Johnson was such a magnificent musician, was nobody excited about what he did when he made those records in 1936," Wald says. "And if he was such a minor figure, why is he now considered the greatest figure of that period?" Wald's path leads from the Mississippi delta to New York to England, where pale, skinny white dudes repackaged the music in pop form and brought it back home for mostly white audiences to embrace.

"The thing that's important to understand is that Robert Johnson and the people in that scene were professional pop musicians," Wald explains. "He could play the latest Bing Crosby and Gene Autry hits along with his own songs."

Lots of people know nothing about Johnson, but almost everyone knows the legend of the crossroads. Wald says that obscures the larger point. "There are all these other musicians who we'll never know where their music came from, but Johnson is the first bluesman where almost everything he did can be traced to a previous person," Wald says. "He's the last logical person to say he got it from the devil. You can see where he got every bit of it."

Wald, a longtime blues musician, plays guitar at his readings, and there are rumors that he might appear at the Grand Emporium (3832 Main) afterward. Though he'll likely play some Robert Johnson, Wald's set, like his book, focuses on those players who shaped Johnson and his contemporaries.

Would Wald choose writing books or playing music? "What I do just isn't very fashionable," Wald says. "It's easier to reach people with a book than going town by town with an unknown name."

Escaping the Delta's journey ends up having a simple aim. "I have no idea how many hundreds of thousands of people there are who the only prewar blues records they own are Robert Johnson albums, but there's a lot of them," Wald says. "This book is basically saying, here's where you go from there."

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