Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “Rhythm & Blues” Edition, where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Robert JohnsonCrossroad BluesAlbum: Crossroad Blues 1936
Musician Robert Johnson was born on May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. A singer and guitarist, Johnson is considered to be one of the greatest blues performers of all time. But this recognition came to him largely after his death. During his brief career, Johnson traveled around, playing wherever he could.
According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Johnson had a tremendous desire to become a great blues musician. He was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The Devil played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This story of a deal with the Devil at the crossroads mirrors the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous.
“Cross Road Blues” (also known as “Crossroads“) is a blues song written and recorded by American blues artist Robert Johnson in 1936. Johnson performed it as a solo piece with his vocal and acoustic slide guitar in the Delta blues-style. 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, although the lyrics do not contain any specific references.
Bluesman Elmore James revived the song with recordings in 1954 and 1960–1961. English guitarist Eric Clapton with Cream popularized the song as “Crossroads” in the late 1960s. Their blues rock interpretation inspired many cover versions and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included it as one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”. Rolling Stone placed it at number three on the magazine’s list of the “Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time” in recognition of Clapton’s guitar work.
Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “The 27 Club Edition” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s and 70’s. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Robert Johnson, the legendary blues musician, died on August 16, 1938 at the young age of 27. The age and year of Johnson’s death makes him the earliest member of the unfortunate 27 club, a group of elite musicians that passed at the age of 27 that includes Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain. So little is known for certain about the biography of Robert Johnson, including the circumstances of his death. Much of the story surrounding Johnson’s life is folklore, myth, and legend. As the magazine Mother Jones reported, testimony from Johnson’s friend and fellow musician David Honeyboy Edwards indicates that Johnson’s death was a murder. As Edwards tells the tale, Robert Johnson was poisoned by a possibly unwitting lover or her jealous husband. The poisoned glass of whiskey contained strychnine in it, and it took three agonizing days to kill him. This narrative about Johnson’s death has been disputed by others. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know the real truth. Just like we’ll never know the exact truth about how Johnson had transformed from a young aspiring blues star with laughable guitar skills into a master of his instrumental craft.
There is lore about how Robert Johnson happened upon a stranger at a cross roads and sold his soul to become famous, perhaps only the Devil knows for sure.
What is documented for sure is the collection of amazing recordings that Robert Johnson made during his short lifetime. Cuts like “Cross Road Blues”, “Come on in My Kitchen”, and “Walking Blues’, are part of a canon of music that has inspired everyone from the likes of Eric Clapton to the Cowboy Junkies. But even those records have fallen into controversies. Whether or not the recordings we’ve heard are actually played at the right speed. The speculation is that the recordings were accidentally sped up, accounting for the uncanny high-pitched quality of Robert Johnson’s vocals. There is also controversy surrounding the existence of a couple of purported photographs of Johnson. It’s funny to imagine how different things would be now in the age of social media and 24/7 news updates and the existence of music blogs like this one. Not only would we know how Johnson’s recordings should sound, but also what kind of mustard he liked to eat on his sandwiches and where he likes to shop for guitar strings. In the age of social sharing and oversharing we’d know pretty much everything.
There’s something to be said for the abundance of information that we now know about our music, our celebrities, everything. Yet, the consequence of the ease of access to music news would probably have removed so much of the intrigue and mystery that surrounds both the life and death of Robert Johnson. The mysteries will probably never be solved and we’ll always want to know. But like other American legends, that intrigue keeps us interested and helps us keep the story of Robert Johnson alive and fresh.
Whether you buy into the legend of Robert Johnson meeting the Devil down at the crossroads and exchanging his soul for musical immortality or not, the recordings the man made in 1936 and 1937 are works of an immense talent. Johnson’s influence on blues and rock music is unquestionable. Among his followers are a who’s who of British and American superstars, many of whom are inductees in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. This music is the real deal, and the primitive quality of the recordings actually enhances the haunting voice and obvious mastery of the guitar that the man possessed. Many have covered his songs as a tribute to Johnson’s legacy and influence, but none have captured the true essence of the original recordings. Check them out and hear for yourself.