Wald was born in 1959 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His parents were George Wald (co-recipient of the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine) and biologist Ruth Hubbard, with whom Elijah co-authored Exploding the Gene Myth.
At age 18, Wald set of for Europe to try to make a living as a folk-blues guitarist. For roughly the next 12 years, he traveled the world. He fronted a blues band in Seville, Spain, a swing trio in Antwerp, Belgium, and a rock band in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and studied with Congolese guitarist Jean-Bosco Mwenda. Returning to the United States, he played in "low dives and honky-tonks", and recorded two albums: the LP Songster, Fingerpicker, Shirtmaker on his and Bill Morrissey's short-lived label Reckless Records and the CD Street Corner Cowboys (Black Rose Records, 2000).
For many years he wrote for the Boston Globe on "roots music" and "world music"; he also wrote on American and international music for various magazines. In 2000, he was one of many freelancers who left the Globe in a dispute over reprint rights.
By the time he and the Globe parted ways, he was already becoming an increasingly established writer. He had been a major collaborator in the Smithsonian Institution's multimedia River of Song project, a survey of contemporary music along the Mississippi River, and had just finished Josh White: Society Blues, a biography of the folk-blues singer Josh White.
Since 2000, he has written numerous books; several of them had CDs as companion pieces. His subject matter has included Mexican corridos and narcocorridos, hitchhiking, the blues musician Robert Johnson and, in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll, the American popular music for roughly the first three-quarters of the 20th century. He co-authored Dave Van Ronk's posthumously published memoir, wrote the Grammy-winning liner notes for The Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Box: "The Journey of Chris Strachwitz", did an instructional DVD for guitarists on the music of Joseph Spence (part of a series issued by Stefan Grossman), and has curated and/or written liner notes for numerous CD compilations and re-releases.