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"Cross Road Blues"
Song by Robert Johnson
Released 1937
Format 78 rpm
Recorded San Antonio, Texas. Friday, November 27, 1936
Genre Blues
Label Vocalion
Writer Robert Johnson

"Cross Road Blues" is one of Delta Blues singer Robert Johnson's most famous songs, released on a 78rpm record in 1937 by Vocalion Records, catalogue 3519. The original version remained out of print after its initial release until the appearance of The Complete Recordings in 1990. In 1961, producer Frank Driggs substituted the previously unreleased alternate take on the first reissue of Johnson's work, the long-playing album King of the Delta Blues Singers.[1] Because of the historical significance of "Cross Road Blues," it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.[2]

Contents

Legend and Interpretation

The lyrics plainly have the narrator attempting to hitch a ride from an intersection as darkness falls. But in close association with the mythic legend of Johnson's short life and death, it has come to represent the tale of a blues man going to a metaphorical crossroads to meet the devil to sell his soul in exchange for becoming a famous blues player. While the idea of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil may be fascinating and evocative, the song itself plainly describes the very real, harrowing situation feared by Johnson and other African Americans in the Deep South in the early 20th century. Historian Leon Litwack has suggested that the song refers to the common fear felt by blacks who were discovered out alone after dark. As late as 1960s in parts of the South, the well-known expression, "Nigger, don't let the sun go down on you here," was, according to Litwack, "understood and vigorously enforced." In an era when lynchings were still common, Johnson was likely singing about the desperation of finding his way home from an unfamiliar place as quickly as possible because, as the song says, "the sun goin' down, boy/ dark gon' catch me here." This interpretation also makes sense of the closing line "You can run/ tell my friend-boy Willie Brown/ that I'm standing at the crossroads" as Johnson's appeal for help from a real-life fellow musician."[3] Furthermore, it is said that Johnson requested that Willie Brown be informed in the event of his death.

The legend of Johnson selling his soul to learn to play guitar is said to have taken place in Rosedale, Mississippi, at the intersection of Highway 8 and Highway 1 (33°50′44″N 91°1′39″W / 33.84556°N 91.0275°W / 33.84556; -91.0275). Another, less common, belief is that the crossroad is at the intersection of Highway 49 and Highway 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi.[4]

Many believe the song is about the original songwriter, Robert Johnson, going to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to play the blues and gain fame. Another Delta bluesman, Tommy Johnson, who was unrelated to Robert, claimed that he actually did that. This is consistent with African religious beliefs about Papa Legba.

Some historians believe the song is actually about an African-American worried about being lynched for being out after dark in an unfamiliar place of the Deep South in the early 20th century. (See Chapter Eight of Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), especially pages 410 and 411.)

A fictionalized version of this legend was the basis for the film Crossroads (1986). It was also the basis of an episode of the television series Supernatural, which introduces the Crossroads Demon, which appears in later episodes. In the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), the legend is also referenced when Everett, Pete and Delmar pick up a hitch hiking guitarist at a Mississippi crossroads named Tommy Johnson. When asked why he was at a crossroad in the middle of nowhere, Tommy reveals that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the guitar.

Covers

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Cream

"Crossroads"
Single by Cream
from the album Wheels of Fire
B-side "Passing the Time"
Released January 1969
Format 7" 45 RPM
Recorded March 10, 1968 (1st show) at Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco
Genre Blues-rock, Hard rock
Length 4:14
Label Atco 6646; Polydor didn't release the single in the U.K.
Writer(s) Robert Johnson
Producer Felix Pappalardi
Cream singles chronology
"White Room"
(1969)
"Crossroads"
(1969)
"Badge"
(1969)

During the spring of 1968, Cream came to America for their second US tour. After their first concert in Santa Monica on March 23, they played a string of dates at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco (Feb 29, and March 1, 2, 8, 9, 10 (all dates with two shows)), and two dates at the Fillmore West in San Francisco on March 3 and 7 (both dates with two shows as well). It was during the first set of the March 10 show that Cream recorded "Crossroads". Arranged by guitarist Eric Clapton, the Cream version had a faster tempo than the original, and included two lines borrowed from Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues."

Unlike Cream's usual arrangement with bassist Jack Bruce singing, guitarist Eric Clapton took the vocals on this recording. Clapton's explosive guitar solos cemented his reputation as a guitar legend; his work from the track was named by one critic the greatest live rock solo ever. Bruce's fluid bass playing, blurring the line between rhythm and melody, has been similarly honored as the second-best live bass performance.

It was placed at #409 on the 2004 List of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and #3 on the 2008 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time. The song also ranks #10 on Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos.[5]

A cover version of this version is a playable track in the music video game Guitar Hero.

Clapton's rehab center in Antigua is called "Crossroads." The guitarist fought depression and drug addiction in the 1970s. [6]

Other cover versions

Other artists who have covered the song range from:

Sample

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See also

Notes

  1. ^ Sony Music Soundtrack for A Century: Folk, Gospel & Blues. Legacy Records J2K 65804, 1999. Liner notes, p. 35
  2. ^ Grammy Hall of Fame
  3. ^ Litwack, Leon F (1998). Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 410–411.  
  4. ^ http://www.vagablogging.net/archives/002438.shtml
  5. ^ http://www.guitarworld.com/article/100_greatest_guitar_solos_10_quotcrossroadquot_eric_clapton
  6. ^ ""Crossroads"". Songfacts.com. http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1285. Retrieved 2009-03-19.  
  7. ^ "The Hamsters - Hamster Jam". Bluesrockers website. 2002-06-11. http://www.bluesrockers.ws/hamstereview.html. Retrieved 2009-03-16.  
  8. ^ Patrick Burbridge. "Music Review - The Hamsters". BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/northyorkshire/music/reviews/hamsters/hamsters.shtml. Retrieved 2009-03-16.  

External links


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