Saturday, February 2, 2019

Crossroads by Robert Johnson

I'd like to devote this second installment of my "Exploring the world of music" series to another single song, "Crossroads," also known by its original title, "Cross Road Blues." The song has been influential in both blues and rock circles for decades.

In the first clip here, we'll hear the original version by Robert Johnson, recorded in 1936. Johnson, master of a style of blues known as the Delta blues, lived from 1911-1938. Though it was only his soulful, blues-filled voice and brilliant acoustic guitar playing on his recordings, he ended up becoming a major influence on some of the biggest bands and musicians to ever come out of rock, including The Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zepplin, The Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, and Bob Dylan, among many others.  

So great is Johnson's influence on rock that, according to this Wikipedia article on Johnson, he, "...was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first induction ceremony, in 1986, as an early influence on rock and roll. In 2003, David Fricke ranked Johnson fifth in Rolling Stone magazine's '100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time'".

I'm a big fan of Robert Johnson and his works. I first discovered his music when I was in high school myself, back in the late 1990s (I graduated in 2001). I grew up on quite a variety of music, and I always enjoyed researching it. I liked trying to go back in time as far as I could, looking for original versions and tracing roots and influences. One of these days, I'll have to devote a standalone post to just him in my series here. He'll definitely require a post all to himself, but until then, here's a little intrigue:

Dying at the age of just 27, so many details about him - his life, death, and even final resting place - are shrouded in mystery and controversy. Only two confirmed photos are known to exist of him - a studio portrait in which he's sporting a pinstriped suit and top hat and posing with his guitar, and a picture taken in a photo booth with cigarette in mouth and guitar in hand. There's a heavily disputed third photo. According to popular legend, though also disputed, Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in rural Mississippi in exchange for his talent. The cause of his death is unknown, and the events and circumstances leading up to it are also questionable. One popular story suggests he was offered a poisoned bottle of whiskey by the angry husband of a woman he'd been flirting with while performing at a dance. Finally, the location of his grave is not known - three different church cemeteries all claim to house his remains, and they could all be wrong.

Anyway, here's the song. First up is Robert Johnson's original "Cross Road Blues," followed by Cream covering the song live in 1968 under the title "Crossroads." From there, we'll hear Cream's studio recording of it, and then close with Rush performing it live in 2004.

Cream definitely needs to be a future post here, as well. A power trio, the band existed from 1966-1968 and consisted of Eric Clapton on guitar and vocals, Jack Bruce on bass and vocals, and Ginger Baker on drums, all three legends in their own rights. They reunited for a brief performance in 1993 to celebrate the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and had a more extensive reunion in 2005. I was in the process of trying to secure an interview with bassist Jack Bruce some years ago when it was suddenly announced that he had passed away. What a story that would have been.

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