Author/musician Elijah Wald has been playing the blues for 30 plus years and has written books on blues greats Robert Johnson, Josh White and Dave van Ronk, and now he’s set to share his knowledge, some songs and some rare footage of early blues players with an audience in Venice.
A program, which will include discussions of Wald’s books, along with footage of Son House, T-Bone Walker and other pioneer bluesmen, is scheduled for 8 p.m. Wednesday, January 18th, at Seven Dudley Cinema a.k.a Sponto Gallery, 7 Dudley Ave., Venice. Admission is free.
Nowadays, blues is most often seen as being a form of roots music. But that’s not the complete picture, says Wald.
“There are a lot of possible ways to define the blues,” he says. “But it’s important to to understand that in the 1930s, blues was merely black popular music.
“If you think of someone like Robert Johnson as a roots musician, you’re just not going to get it.”
The musicians at that time had no conception of being the root of anything, says Wald.
“If you find the Rolling Stones and say that Robert Johnson is their roots, you are correct, but that’s not how Johnson saw it. A root doesn’t know it’s a root.”
Early blues greats such as Johnson just wanted to make it big and find a ticket out of the Mississippi Delta, Wald explains.
Tragically, many, including Johnson, did not find the success they were looking for and did not become influential until late in their lives or after their deaths, says Wald. The reason Wald won’t be screening footage of Robert Johnson is that none exists, to his knowledge.
Originally, blues music was a way black musicians in the early 20th century expressed the hardships, struggles and irony of issues in their daily lives living in the American South — over a 12-bar musical progression.
Was blues music the same to poor blacks as hillbilly/country music was to poor whites?
Not at all, says Wald. “There were plenty of blacks that played hillbilly music as well. But record labels found that people buying hillbilly records were white, so they only recorded white artists. The record companies at the time made that racial division.”
A better comparison would be blues and hip-hop, says Wald.
“Blues was the rap of the 1920s and 1930s,” says Wald. “It was a new popular style that so-called respectable people would shy away from.”
It’s not that the two genres sound the same, it’s more the demographic of listeners.
“If you go to the same neighborhoods where young people used to listen to blues, you’ll find today’s young people listening to rap and hip-hop.”
“Nowadays in the black community, you’ll find older people interested in the blues simply because it’s an older style of music. Many white people listen to blues because it’s safe to do so nowadays, unlike in the heyday of blues,” says Wald.
A rediscovery of blues in the late 1950s and early 1960s, especially in England, led to a swell of bands that would come to define classic rock ‘n’ roll, most notably The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and a short time later Cream and Eric Clapton.
The decline of the overwhelming blues influence in rock ‘n’ roll came with the emergence of disco in the 1970s, says Wald.
“After disco, there really was a change. Generally, there were no more straight-up-Southern blues-rooted sounds on top of the pop charts,” says Wald.
Today, there are a few pop bands such as the White Stripes bringing it back, he says.
Asked for a short list of classic and influential artists for those looking to rediscover the blues, Wald names Robert Johnson, Dinah Washington, T-Bone Walker, BB King, Bessie Smith, Count Basie Orchestra, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and a more obscure personal favorite Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Information, (310) 306-7330.