Cross Road Blues

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"Crossroads (song)" redirects here. For other songs of that title, see Crossroads.
"Cross Road Blues"
Single by Robert Johnson
B-side "Ramblin' on My Mind"
Released May 1937 (1937-05)
Format 10" 78 rpm record
Recorded Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, Texas November 27, 1936
Genre Blues
Length 2:39
Label Vocalion (cat. no. 03519)
Writer(s) Robert Johnson
Producer(s) Don Law

"Cross Road Blues" (more commonly known as "Crossroads") 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.

Original song[edit]

Lyrics and interpretation[edit]

The song opens with the protagonist at an intersection kneeling in despair to beg forgiveness, while the second section tells of 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

In the last two sections, Johnson expresses apprehension at being stranded without a "sweet woman that love [sic] and feel my care" and asks that his friend Willie Brown be advised of his predicament.

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.[1] 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".[2] 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.[3] How much Johnson himself contributed to this myth is debated, although many agree "the 'devil angle' made for good marketing".[4]


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".[5] Writer Elijah Wald 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".[6]

As with many early blues songs, "Cross Road Blues" differs from a well-defined twelve-bar blues structure. The verses are not consistent and range from fourteen to fifteen bars in length.[7] Additionally, the harmonic progression is often implied rather than stated (full IV and V chords are not used).[7] 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. According to music writer John Covach, "the slide permits a greater variety of melodic nuance [thus] allowing the guitar to imitate the voice more closely".[7]


"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.[8][9] As with most Johnson records, the single (with its flip side "Ramblin' on My Mind") "sold disappointingly"[10] 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.[9] 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[edit]

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.[11] 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[edit]

1969 Italian single picture sleeve
Single by Cream
from the album Wheels of Fire
B-side "Passing the Time"
Released 1969 (1969)
Format 7" 45 rpm record
Recorded Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco March 10, 1968 (1st show)
Genre Hard rock, blues rock
Length 4:16
Label Atco (no. 45-6646)
Writer(s) Robert Johnson
Producer(s) Felix Pappalardi

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. Powerhouse consisted of Steve Winwood on vocals, Clapton on guitar, Jack Bruce on bass guitar, Paul Jones on harmonica, Ben Palmer on piano, and Pete York on drums. Their loose, R&B-influenced interpretation of the song 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.[12] 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".[7] 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", according to Covach.[7] In addition to Johnson's opening and closing lyrics, Clapton twice adds a section from Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues".[13]

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.[14] Although extensively reworked by Clapton and Cream, both the original album and single credit the songwriter as Robert Johnson or R. Johnson. Writer Anthony DeCurtis describes "Crossroads" as 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".[15] Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine 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".[16]

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[edit]

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".[9] In 1998, it received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award, which "honor[s] recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance".[17] 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".[18] Rolling Stone magazine placed it at number three on its "Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time".[19]

Numerous musicians have recorded renditions of "Cross Road Blues", usually following Cream's arrangement. Some of these include:[20]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, Todd Rundgren, 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."[21] Alexander's critically acclaimed "Saving Robert Johnson"[22] was included in the Mississippi Blues Project, an extensive review of Mississippi blues produced by WXPN in Philadelphia.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Litwack, Leon F (1998). Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. Vintage Books. pp. 410–411. ISBN 978-0-394-52778-9. 
  2. ^ Charlton, Katherine (2008). Rock Music Styles: A History. McGraw-Hill. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-07-312162-8. 
  3. ^ Schroeder, Patricia R. (2004). Robert Johnson: Mythmaking and Contemporary American Culture. University of Illinois Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-252-02915-8. 
  4. ^ Gioia, Ted (2008). Delta Blues. W. W. Norton. p. 164. ISBN 978-0-393-33750-1. 
  5. ^ Komara, Edward; Wardlow, Gayle Dean (1998). Chasin' That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues. Miller Freeman. p. 204. ISBN 978-0-87930-552-9. 
  6. ^ Wald, Elijah (2004). Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Amistad. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-06-052427-2. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Covach, John (1997). Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis. Oxford University Press. pp. 63–71. ISBN 978-0-19-510005-1. 
  8. ^ ARC labels catalogue number 7–05–81, Vocalion cat. no. 03519.
  9. ^ a b c O'Neal, Jim (1986). "Classics of Blues Recordings – Singles or Album Tracks". Blues Hall of Fame Inductees Winners. The Blues Foundation. Retrieved July 12, 2013. 
  10. ^ Palmer, Robert (1981). Deep Blues. Penguin Books. p. 128. ISBN 0-14-006223-8. 
  11. ^ Flair catalogue number 1057.
  12. ^ Mandel, Howard (2005). The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues. Billboard Books. p. 217. ISBN 0-8230-8266-0. 
  13. ^ Another Johnson song first released on 1961's King of the Delta Blues Singers.
  14. ^ "Wheels of Fire – Billboard Singles". Allmusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved July 12, 2013. 
  15. ^ DeCurtis, Anthony (1988). Crossroads (Box set booklet). Eric Clapton. Polydor. p. 9. 835 261-2. 
  16. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Cream: Wheels of Fire – Album Review". AllMusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved July 12, 2013. 
  17. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame Awards – Past Recipients". The Recording Academy. 1998. Retrieved Junly 12, 2003.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  18. ^ "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". Exhibit Highlights. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 1995. Archived from the original on 2007. Retrieved July 12, 2013. 
  19. ^ "100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. 2003. Archived from the original on 2003. Retrieved July 12, 2013. 
  20. ^ "Crossroads – Song Search Results". AllMusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved July 12, 2013. 
  21. ^ Szalony, Greg. "Linsey Alexander - Been There Done That". Blues Blast Magazine. Retrieved 28 January 2013. 
  22. ^ Whiteis, David. "CD Reviews October 2012 – Linsey Alexander". Living Blues. Retrieved 28 January 2013. 
  23. ^ Meister, Jonny. "The Mix: The Mississippi Blues Project". NPR Music. Retrieved 28 January 2013.