Cross Road Blues
|"Cross Road Blues"|
|Single by Robert Johnson|
|B-side||"Ramblin' on My Mind"|
|Format||10" 78 rpm record|
|Recorded||Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, Texas November 27, 1936|
|Label||Vocalion (cat. no. 03519)|
"Cross Road Blues" is a blues song written and recorded by American blues artist Robert Johnson in 1936. It is a solo performance in the Delta blues-style with Johnson's vocal accompanied by his acoustic slide guitar. Although its lyrics do not contain any specific references, the song has become part of the Robert Johnson mythology as referring to the place where he supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talents.
Lyrics and interpretation
The song opens with the narrator at an intersection kneeling in despair to beg forgiveness. Abruptly and without explanation, the narrative shifts to his failed attempts to hitch a ride as night approaches:
- Standin' at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride (2×)
- Didn't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by
- Standin' at the crossroad, risin' sun goin' down (2×)
- I believe to my soul now, po' Bob is sinkin' down
We are not told why this is so distressing, merely that there no woman there to support him. Finally we are told to report the singer's condition to a named friend, Wllie Brown. The actions and emotions are not explicitly linked; the listener's imagination supplies the connections.
According to historian Leon Litwack, in the 1936 rural South, blacks had good reason to be afraid of being caught alone at night in an unfamiliar place — trumped up vagrancy charges and even lynchings still took place. Others suggest that the song is also about a deeper and more personal loneliness with the imagery of the singer falling to his knees and the absence of a "sweet woman". Johnson's original audience would have known the same fear and the same moments of intense loneliness. Many would also have felt the same guilt at not following a church-going, blues-renouncing lifestyle. Modern audiences are more familiar with the legend of Johnson the musician. The song has been used to perpetuate the myth of Johnson selling his soul to the devil for his musical ability, although nothing in the actual lyrics deals with a Faustian bargain. How much Johnson himself contributed to this myth is debated, although many agree "the 'devil angle' made for good marketing".
As with many Johnson songs, "Cross Road Blues" was inspired by earlier blues songs. Author Edward Komara has identified "Straight Alky Blues" (1929 Vocalion 1290) by Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell as a "melodic precedent". Another sees it as an extension of Johnson's arrangement for his first single "Terraplane Blues", but with more slide guitar and "the first piece to showcase his [Johnson's] command of the rootsy, Son House-derived Delta style".
As with many early blues songs, "Cross Road Blues" differs from a well-defined twelve-bar blues structure. The verses have a "varying number of bars and even beats", generally from fourteen to fifteen bars in length, and the harmonic progression is often implied rather than stated (full IV and V chords are not used). Johnson uses a Spanish or open G tuning with the guitar tuned up to the key of B. This facilitates Johnson's use of a slide, while maintaining the rhythm on the lower strings. "The slide permits a greater variety of melodic nuance [thus] allowing the guitar to imitate the voice more closely".
"Cross Road Blues" was recorded during Robert Johnson's last recording session in San Antonio, Texas on November 27, 1936. Two similar takes of the song were recorded — the first was released in May 1937 on the then standard 10-inch 78 rpm record. As with most Johnson records, the single (with its flip side "Ramblin' on My Mind") "sold disappointingly" and remained out of print after its initial release until the appearance of The Complete Recordings in 1990. The second take was released in 1961, when producer Frank Driggs substituted it for the original on Johnson's long-playing record album King of the Delta Blues Singers. This take was also included on the 1990 Complete Recordings (at 2:29, it is :10 shorter than the original 2:39 single version).
Elmore James versions
American blues singer and guitarist Elmore James, who popularized Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom", recorded two variations on "Cross Road Blues". Both titled "Standing at the Crossroads", they feature James' trademark "Dust My Broom" amplified slide-guitar figure and a backing ensemble. James' lyrics focus more on the lost-love aspect of the song:
- Well I was standin' at the crossroad, and my baby not around (2×)
- Well I begin to wonder, 'Is poor Elmore sinkin' down'...
James first recorded "Standing at the Crossroads" in September 1954 in Los Angeles for the Bihari brothers' Flair Records. His second version was recorded in New York City in 1960 or 1961 during one of his last sessions for Bobby Robinson's Fury/Fire/Enjoy group of labels. Both versions appear on numerous James' compilations.
Homesick James, Elmore's cousin, with whom he had recorded and toured, also recorded a rendition titled "Crossroads". The session for Chicago-based USA Records took place on July 23, 1963. Homesick used an instrumental arrangement similar to Elmore's; however, all of his lyrics were derived from Robert Johnson's second take, and, given the recording date, suggest that he benefitted from the 1961 release.
Eric Clapton/Cream interpretation
1969 Italian single picture sleeve.
|Single by Cream|
|from the album Wheels of Fire|
|B-side||"Passing the Time"|
|Format||7" 45 rpm record|
|Recorded||Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco March 10, 1968 (1st show)|
|Genre||Hard rock, blues rock|
|Label||Atco (cat. no. 45-6646)|
In February 1966, prior to joining Cream, Eric Clapton recorded the song as "Crossroads" with a short-lived studio project, dubbed Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse. Their loose, R&B-influenced interpretation of the song, with Steve Winwood (vocals), Clapton (guitar), Jack Bruce (bass guitar), Paul Jones (harmonica), Ben Palmer (piano), and Pete York (drums), was released on the Elektra Records compilation album What's Shakin' in June 1966. It features the guitar figure that Clapton later used with Cream and a harmonica solo by Jones.
On March 10, 1968, Cream recorded a live version of "Crossroads" during a performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. It features an up-beat hard-rock arrangement by Clapton and an eight-note guitar riff and has both major and minor scale centers. According to Clapton, the riff is an embellishment of Robert Johnson's guitar lines and "was the easiest for me to see as a rock and roll vehicle". Unlike Johnson's or James' versions, Cream's song has "a straight eighth-note [rock] rhythm", with Bruce's bass line "combin[ing] with [Baker's] drums to create and continually emphasize continuity in the regular metric drive". In addition to Johnson's opening and closing lyrics, Clapton twice adds a section from Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues".
Cream's Winterland recording of "Crossroads" was released on the group's Wheels of Fire album in August 1968. A single was also released, reaching number 28 in the Billboard Hot 100. Although extensively reworked by Clapton and Cream, both the original album and single credit the songwriter as Robert Johnson or R. Johnson. According to the liner notes to Clapton's 1988 four-CD retrospective Crossroads, "'Crossroads' is a Cream classic—edited, as it was, by engineer Tom Dowd for the Wheels of Fire album—compared to the much longer renditions the band typically fired up". An Allmusic review of Wheels of Fire attributes the editing to producer Felix Pappalardi, who "cut together the best bits of a winding improvisation to a tight four minutes, giving this track a relentless momentum that's exceptionally exciting".
After Cream's breakup in 1968, Clapton has continued to perform "Crossroads" in a variety of settings. Live recordings appear on Live at the Fillmore (with Derek and the Dominos), Crossroads 2: Live in the Seventies, The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, and other albums. Clapton has also used the name for the Crossroads Centre, a drug rehabilitation center he founded, and for the Crossroads Guitar Festivals to benefit the center.
Recognition and influence
In 1986, Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues" was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, noting 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". In 1998, it received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award, which "honor[s] recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance". In 1995, Cream's "Crossroads" was included on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list 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".
Numerous musicians have recorded renditions of "Cross Road Blues", usually following Cream's arrangement. Some of these include:The Allman Joys, The Doors (on their Live In Pittsburgh 1970 album), Free, Jeff Healey, Cyndi Lauper, Lynyrd Skynyrd (on their One More from the Road live album), John Mayer, Phish, Paul Rodgers, Rush, Robin Trower, Leslie West, and Johnny Winter.
Linsey Alexander's song "Saving Robert Johnson" brings the myth around "Crossroads" into the present day with the lyrics, "I want you to e-mail the devil, I want you to poke him on Facebook." Alexander's critically acclaimed "Saving Robert Johnson" was included in the Mississippi Blues Project, an extensive review of Mississippi blues produced by WXPN in Philadelphia.
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