SONG: Cross Road Blues
ARTIST: Robert Johnson
Listen to it here:
Cross Road Blues or Crossroads was written by blues artist Robert Johnson in 1936. The song was the result of a 3rd recording session, recorded in a hotel with a portable disc cutting machine. Two similar versions of the song were recorded. There were no sales figures of the song, but it was apparently ‘widely heard’ in Mississippi and adjacent states. Cross Road Blues was 1 of only 11 singles that Johnson recorded and released.
Apparently a crossroads is an important geographical feature in the Mississippi Delta area, as the plains are generally flat and featureless – crossroads provide some sort of landmark. Johnson’s encounter at the crossroads in the song are seen as semi-autobiographical – some say he sold his soul to the devil there in order to play guitar the way he did. Blues historians also interpret the song as protest or social commentary. One of lines Johnsons sings “the sun goin’ down now boy, dark gon’ catch me here”, referencing the ‘sundown laws’ of the Jim Crow South dictating that Black people had an imposed curfew in certain municipalities or risk imprisonment or even their lives if they were out after dark.
The song is not a typical 12-bar blues type of configuration, and Johnson uses open G tuning. Both recordings of the song start slower and speed up, perhaps due to the concerns of the engineers potentially running out of time on the recording.
Robert Leroy Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on May 8th, 1911. Johnson seemed to move around a lot in his youth, on account of his family being chased out of town by a lynch mob and his mother remarrying an illiterate sharecropper 24 years her junior. Despite the upheaval, Johnson got a good education and became an accomplished harmonica and mouth harp player. At 16 years old, Johnson’s mother told him about his birth father of which he previously had no knowledge and changed his last name to Johnson (was previously Dodd), which showed on his marriage certificate that year – yes, he got married at 16 years old. His wife ended up dying in childbirth, which people said was divine retribution for Johnson singing the Devil’s music, or secular music. A fellow musician at the time remembered Johnson as being a cringingly bad guitar player, went away for a while and upon his return had miraculously acquired guitar skills. This is where the story of making a pact with the Devil in exchange for chops comes from, a story which Johnson enjoyed perpetuating.
Johnson became a “walking” musician, hoofing it from town to town, playing street corners and bars, drinking lots of whiskey and – what may have led to his demise – seducing many women. Johnson died at age 27 of “unknown causes”. It was not publicly announced – Johnson had just disappeared. It wasn’t until 30 years later that a musicologist found his death certificate with the date, but no cause of death mentioned. Medical professionals deduce that congenital syphilis could be a major contributing factor in his death, but the more popular theory is…
Rumour has it that Johnson was actually poisoned by the jealous boyfriend of a girl with whom Johnson had a fling. Strychnine and naphthalene are both seen as the possible culprits.
When I was a teenage guitar gearhead, I considered Robert Johnson this mysterious, shrouded in mystery pioneer of blues and guitar virtuosity. It’s been a minute since I’ve listened though. I’m going to pontificate for a minute and just try to emphasize how important a figure Robert Johnson is in 20th century music, even given his short life. I feel like in this version of this song you can hear so many of the other blues and rock and roll singers and guitarists who were to follow – Muddy Waters, BB King, Eric Clapton. Modern rock, alternative, blues, metal, etc etc is all rooted in Johnson’s playing, and you can hear a lot of that here in both his singing and playing. Johnson’s guitar work here is absolutely seamless – I think I read back in the day that he had enormous hands, so that’s what would have allowed him to move along the fretboard with such ease. This version of this song is an absolute must-have for any blues guitar aficionado.
Wait a minute, this is an Eric Clapton song! This was my very anachronistic first thought. Obviously, it’s been around much longer than Clapton. Robert Johnson looks like and sings like a total badass. I really like his voice, and I love blues that sounds so high energy and kind of grinding like his voice sometimes gets. His guitar playing sounds so ahead of its time too. So much intensity in this song. Robert Johnson died at 27, he was poisoned by a jealous boyfriend of one of his many lady friends. It’s sad to imagine all of the innovation to the blues he could have brought had he lived longer. Well, he has one new fan!
Average mark out of 10:
*A mark of 8/10 or higher means this is definitely worth buying!
Other notable versions of this song:
Probably the most famous version of the song performed by Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker (Cream).
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