“Down in New Orleans where the blues was born,” begins that floor-thumper “Mardi Gras Mambo.” Wonderful lines, though history has identified the Mississippi Delta as the blues cradle.
Elijah Wald, a writer and musician who has a home here, performs a dazzling journey through the music’s origins in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Wald tackles the image of the Delta bluesman, have-guitar-will-travel, laying down the song lines that would carry to Chicago and a night world of amplified sound, charging the dance floors of transplanted blacks who bought the records and created a commercial market.
Women gave the blues the first big push – divas such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, who galvanized shows in the 1920s with vaudeville infused with black folkways. “Their costumes were famously gaudy, and they were known for having uncanny control over their audiences – a mix of showbiz and soulfulness,” writes Wald.
Reader participation time: Name two New Orleans artists most overtly associated with the blues.

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