Elijah Wald's 2004 book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues begins like this:
There has probably been more romantic foolishness written about blues in general, and Robert Johnson in particular, than just about any other genre or performer in the twentieth century.
In a nutshell, Wald's goal is to help us see Robert Johnson and the pre-war blues as perceived in his time and by his audience. Because a lot of what we in our time think about both of them has been shaped by white intellectuals who came along thirty years later and "explained" the blues as part of a deeply spiritual, almost mystical expression -- a pure music made by naive but brilliant instrumental masters who bared their souls in the swamplands of the Mississippi Delta.
But the blues was pop music, and blues musicians were professionals who played a wide variety of music, not just blues. Whatever their audiences wanted to hear, whatever the girls wanted to dance to, they played. They aspired for the good life, dressing in high style and playing in nice clubs for big audiences in Chicago and New York, and their audiences liked that as well. Nobody wanted to stay in rundown honky-tonks on Southern backroads if they could help it.
But the white aficionados who discovered the music decades later turned it in to a kind of outsider art,the more obscure, the better. Just as now, critics avoided lauding music that appealed to the masses. They felt the popular blues musicians playing the stage in Chicago were too slick, too commercial. They wanted "the real thing," so they searched for the most obscure players and the rarest records. By the '50s and '60s, when white archivists reissued old country blues 78s on LP, everything was turned around: they championed musicians who most people had never heard back in the day, and the big stars -- the ones most in demand by black audiences of the '20s and '30s -- became obscure.
Thus, Robert Johnson, a talented professional musician who sold fewer than 5000 records and died at 27 (becoming a prototype of the tragic rock star), became emblematic of an entire genre. Stories grew up about his abilities and his history, though few people had any certainty about them. Wald makes it clear that Johnson was not a mystical figure in tune with a haunted muse with a skill inspired (figuratively or actually) by a deal with the Devil.
The truth about the blues, as Wald shows, is that white record producers weren't interested in travelling to Mississippi to record black artists crooning romantic ballads or playing upbeat jazz or swing tunes. It didn't matter that black musicians -- and audiences -- loved Guy Lombardo, Bing Crosby, and Lawrence Welk -- these were white-owned record labels making music to sell in Chicago and New York, and what sold were rural black performers playing the blues.
Another interesting reversal Wald describes is with dress. Even if black blues players were poor, they'd spend their money to buy a nice suit to wear onstage. But the white producers liked to promote them as penniless downtrodden ramblers, and the young white rock stars who idolized them adopted jeans and work shirts -- farm and laborer clothes -- in emulation. No contemporary of Robert Johnson would ever play a gig dressed like that! You can see this difference in the original LP cover on the left, and the CD cover on the right -- the CD used a photo of Johnson that hadn't been discovered in 1961, dressed in a sharp pinstriped suit and a jaunty hat.
As with Wald's subsequent book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll, he strips away decades of received wisdom about popular music and helps us see it -- especially music played by and inspired by African-Americans -- as it really was: a commercial art form played by practiced, talented performers making music that audiences loved.