If you don’t instantly remember this song by it’s title, take a listen and you might be able to place the song.
To later generations it became known as simply “Crossroads”. It has become not just a Blues standard, in 1986 Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. Writing for the foundation, Jim O’Neal noted that
Regardless of mythology and rock ‘n’ roll renditions, Johnson’s record was indeed a powerful one, a song that would stand the test of time on its own.
About that mythology, many have heard the story of how Johnson acquired his talent by selling his soul to devil. It was even prospered by a movie that Hollywood decided needed a White Italian-American guy to portray Robert and the myth. At least they had the good sense to have Steve Vai play the guitar parts for the movie.
Here’s a video from American Mythology that tells the story of Johnson and the myth quite well:
Robert Leroy Johnson was born on May 8, 1911 and died August 16, 1938. Yes, he was 27 when he died, possibly the beginning of the infamous “27 club” of several artists dying at that age. He was an American Blues singer-songwriter and musician. His landmark recordings in 1936 and 1937 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that has influenced later generations of musicians.
A dirt-poor, African-American in the South during the Great Depression who would grow up, learn to sing and play the blues, and eventually achieve worldwide renown. In the decades after his death, he has become known as the “King of the Delta Blues Singers”, his music expanding in influence to the point that rock stars of the greatest magnitude – the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers – all sing his praise and have recorded his songs.
You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.
Eric Clapton put it more plainly:
I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.
The power of Johnson’s music has been amplified over the years by the fact that so little about him is known and what little biographical information we now have only revealed itself at an almost glacial pace. Myths surrounding his life took over: that he was a country boy turned ladies’ man; that he only achieved his uncanny musical mastery after selling his soul to the devil. Even the tragedy of his death seemed to grow to mythic proportion: being poisoned by a jealous boyfriend then taking three days to expire, even as the legendary talent scout John Hammond was searching him out to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
He recorded 29 songs between 1936 and ‘37 for the American Record Corporation, which released eleven 78rpm records on their Vocalion label during Johnson¹s lifetime, and one after his death. Most of these tunes have attained canonical status, and are now considered enduring anthems of the genre: “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Walking Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Another legendary song of Roberts, which the Rolling Stones covered:
Most of Robert Johnson’s songs have been covered by many artists. Johnson’s first single was “Terraplane Blues”. Johnson used the car model Terraplane as a metaphor for sex. In the lyrical narrative, the car will not start and Johnson suspects that his girlfriend let another man drive it when he was gone. In describing the various mechanical problems with his Terraplane, Johnson creates a setting of thinly veiled sexual innuendo.
In 1975 Led Zeppelin took the song as a tribute to the song and their basis for “Trampled Under Foot”. The themes and musical style of these songs however differ; “Terraplane Blues” is about infidelity, while “Trampled Under Foot” is about giving in to sexual temptation.
Most later generations became aware, and interested in Robert’s work, due to the cover by Cream of “Crossroads Blues”, calling their version simply “Crossroads”. Their live version of the song they recorded at the Winterland Ballroom in 1968 is incredible, but that’s to be expected from Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker at arguably their best.
Clapton envisioned “Crossroads” as a rock song:
It became, then, a question of finding something that had a riff, a form that could be interpreted, simply, in a band format. In ‘Crossroads’ there was a very definite riff. He [Johnson] was playing it full-chorded with the slide as well. I just took it on a single string or two strings and embellished it. Out of all of the songs it was the easiest for me to see as a rock and roll vehicle.
Clapton also simplifies and standardizes Johnson’s vocal lines. In addition to Johnson’s opening and closing lyrics, he twice adds the same section from “Traveling Riverside Blues”, another Robert Johnson song from 1937:
I’m going down to Rosedale, take my rider by my side (2×)
You can still barrel house baby, on the riverside
In 1998, “Cross Road Blues” received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award to acknowledge its quality and place in recording history. In 1995, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed Cream’s “Crossroads” as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. Rolling Stone magazine placed it at number three on its Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.