Interview with Elijah Wald

This week, Henrietta and Eli talk with musician, author and world class hitch-hiker, Elijah Wald. They discuss his latest excellent book, the pro-hitch-hiking tract, “Riding with Strangers,” as well as his book on Mexican ballads of the drug trade, “Narcocorrido.” Elijah brought along one of Dave van Ronk’s old guitars, and plays live in the studio in many different guitar styles, and Eli plays some cuts from “Corridos y Narcocorridos,” the CD that Elijah produced to accompany his book.

Interview with Elijah Wald

Lots of good links for this episode: – Elijah’s website. He’s got some incredible stuff on here including his CD catalogue of African guitar music, and a rememberance of his father George Wald, a Nobel Prize winning biologist who opposed the Vietnam War. The website includes information on all of his books as well as a bunch of his other writings on all manner of subjects.

Article on Narco Corrido Music Videos – Drug lords clash musically and visually on YouTube. Very interesting.

Elijah on YouTube – Video 1, Video 2

Wikipedia Article on Narco Corridos

Fonovisa – Record company that put out the CD that Elijah produced to accompany his book, “Corridos y Narco Corridos.”

Link about Haitain Compas – This is the music that Elijah mentioned he thought was some of the best but most unrecognized (by the world at large) music coming into the United States now.

List of Narco Corrido Videos on YouTube

Elijah’s Joseph Spence Instrucional DVD


  1. Joseph Scott

    Elijah Wald and I are having a conversation about his Robert Johnson book and his claims in it about where blues music originated (he used _… And The Invention Of The Blues_ in his title, but doesn’t understand who invented blues music) on amazon right now. Here is the conversation so far:

    Joseph Scott:
    The great majority of this book deserves five stars, and one of the main points it makes deserves one star. Wald is interested in Robert Johnson in his ’30s context and does a terrific job of describing that context. Wald seems to have far less knowledge of blues music before 1920, and his suggestion that blues music did not arise as folk music goes against a mountain of evidence that it did, including from people who were old enough to observe it doing so such as W.C. Handy. (Of course that idea sounds interesting to any reader who is excited about blues music being demythologized. But it isn’t true. Folklorists Howard Odum and E.C. Perrow independently collected black folk songs with the word “blues” in them _years_ before Handy’s “Memphis Blues” was published. If song publications anywhere in the South or North and a consensus among Handy’s peers don’t satisfy you, read e.g. Abbott and Seroff’s books and Henry Sampson’s comparable book and notice when minor stage performers began taking up “Blues” at all. Peter Muir’s book is important for context too.) When I corresponded with Wald about this, he forthrightly admitted that he couldn’t defend that idea well. I hope it will be omitted from any future editions of the book.

    I would only note that Lynn Abbott (of Abbott and Seroff) read the chapters on pre-blues, contributed to them, and does not share Joseph Scott’s opinion of them–which is not to say he agrees with every word, but he does not think there are substantial errors of fact. Whether blues was a form of folk music is a matter of interpretation, not of fact. My interpretation remains the same as in this book, though I thoroughly agree that other interpretations are possible.

    Where blues music originated is a factual issue. The New York Times online quotes you as saying in 2004 that “the blues was pop music — it simply wasn’t folk music. It was invented retroactively as black folk music….” That radical statement is simply wrong, and shows ignorance of the research that was done on early blues music during the 90-plus years before it. Howard Odum and E.C. Perrow, working independently of each other, both published black folk songs in the 1910s that were collected before 1910 and were specifically about having the “blues.” This book claims on p. 32 that “[m]ost likely” folk artists did not have any more primacy than pop artists. If that’s so, then according to you, Elijah, what similarly important role did pop artists most likely play before 1910 in the invention of blues music?

    I’m mystified what it is that Lynn Abbott agrees with Elijah Wald about that is supposedly relevant to the critical element of my review. From Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff’s “‘They Cert’ly Sound Good to Me’: Sheet Music, Southern Vaudeville, And The Commercial Ascendancy Of The Blues,” emphasis added: “Clearly it was at the insistence of the southern vaudeville audiences that the blues, a previously submerged aspect of African American _folk_ culture, ascended the stage…. When southern vaudevillians embraced _folk-blues_ concoctions in their stage repertory, the audience shouted loud in recognition….” “Blues and other timber hewn from rural southern _folk_ culture had served as [black stage entertainers’] battering ram [into larger theaters].” “… John H. Williams specialized in the comic adaptation of the up-to-date Southern _folk_ idioms from which blues was gleaned.” “String Beans, Baby Seals, Johnnie Woods [who is the first person documented singing blues on a stage, in 1910] and Little Henry, Willie and Lulu Too Sweet, Laura Smith — these were some of the first ‘blue diamonds in the rough’ [quoting W.C. Handy, who said blues music originated as folk music] to rise above the anonymous street corners, barrelhouses, juke joints, railroad depots, and one-room country shacks of _folk-blues_ literature. They were the fathers and mothers of the blues on the American stage.” “The implication is that by 1909 the term blues was known to describe a distinct folk-musical genre….” From Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff’s _Ragged But Right: … The Dark Pathway To Blues And Jazz_: “By mid-decade [of the 1910s], blues singing had begun to make a permanent home in tended minstrelsy [by black performers]. W.C. Handy’s early blues publications [which started in 1912]… initiated the trend.” “Prof. John Eason’s Annex Band [a black band]… may have been the first circus band to include a blues song in its repertoire… [in] 1912….” Where is the evidence that pop music was contributing to blues music during the period 1905-1909? Because 1905-1909, that is the period when Antonio Maggio said he heard a black guitarist on a levee perform an “I Got The Blues” that served as the inspiration for the 12-bar strain in his own published “I Got The Blues,” _and_ a black folk song with “blues” in the lyrics was collected that E.C. Perrow reported on in his _Journal Of American Folk-Lore_ article, _and_, independently of Perrow’s work, Howard Odum collected more than one black folk song with “blues” in the lyrics (see his “Folk-Song And Folk-Poetry As Found In The Secular Songs Of The Southern Negroes”: “I got the blues but too damn mean to cry/I got the blues but too damn mean to cry” in “Look’d Down De Road” and “I got de blues an’ can’t be satisfied/Brown-skin woman cause of it all/Lawd, Lawd, Lawd” in “Knife-Song”). When that collection of Odum’s appeared in book form in 1926, the book said, “[These lyrics] are taken from songs collected in Georgia and Mississippi between 1905 and 1908…” and “There is no doubt that the first songs appearing in print under the name of blues were based directly upon actual songs already current among Negroes.”

  2. Joseph Scott

    My conversation with Elijah in the amazon comments continued. Elijah (who in 2004 said blues music “simply wasn’t folk music”) acknowledged there on Dec. 1, 2014, “It is… clearly true that ‘blues originated from old… folk lore songs.'” (The quaintly worded quote is from black pro songwriter Perry Bradford in 1921.) He acknowledged on Dec. 8, 2014, “I think that many of the folk songs [Howard] Odum collected before 1909 are what I now would call blues music….” On repeated requests, he didn’t offer evidence for his notion on his website, “first [blues] was a black pop style…,” because he can’t, because it wasn’t. The first publication of a blues song wasn’t until 1912, by the black pro songwriters Chris Smith and Tim Brymn, copyrighted in January 1912, at least 3 years after Odum, according to Odum, stopped working on that particular collection of black folk songs. (There was a single “Blues” instrumental published before 1912, by a white guy who later recalled that he’d picked up its basic 12-bar strain and its title from a black guitarist on a levee.) As of now Elijah has not changed that inaccurate claim at the website.

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