Robert Johnson

Crossroads (sometimes known as the Crossroads blues) is a song so shrouded in mystery and hearsay that separating fact from legend is a tricky task. Thanks to Eric Clapton, Hollywood and Blues lore we’ve all heard about how the song’s creator Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads to sell his soul to Satan in exchange for superhuman skills on the guitar. Or maybe not.

According to a combination of rumor and a broad interpretation of the song’s lyrics, Crossroads is both the documentation and result of Johnson’s bargain. The truth is probably less thrilling. But here’s what we can say with certainty: Robert Johnson was an itinerant blues man, who in October of 1936 recorded the song for ARC records.

The ferocity of Johnson’s solo performance lends credence to the rumor of its Faustian origin. His fret board skills are fiercely nimble enough to suggest that he got the better of his bargain with the Devil. And the howl in the bluesman’s voice can still produce shivers more than eighty years after its recording date.

Tragically Johnson didn’t live to see subsequent renditions of the song reach iconic status. He was killed in 1938 by the jealous husband of a woman he’d bedded. Or maybe not. It’s fitting that a man whose life was cloaked in mystery would die under such murky circumstances.

Robert Johnson was one of the early masters of the Delta blues.

Clapton travels the road

Decades after Johnson’s passing, a cover by the band Cream played an enormous role in keeping Crossroads alive. Featuring dazzling guitar and pleasant – if not quite demonically charged – vocals from Eric Clapton, Cream’s versions added just enough punch to update the song for pop fans young enough to be Johnson’s grandkids.

Johnson’s version, for all its charm, is as much a product of the 1930s as the Rumba. But Cream opened up the blues classic to rock and roll’s influence without sacrificing an ounce of its Delta blues flavor.

Crossroads would survive still more renditions as rumors of Johnson’s trip to that dusty intersection kept swirling. It’s tempting to credit the stability of the rumors to human gullibility, and the tendency to believe in myth without proof. But anyone who’s listened to the haunting tone of Crossroads can be forgiven for feeling they’ve found all the proof they need in Johnson’s desperate wail.

Crossroads Lyrics

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above "have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please"

Ooh, standin' at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
Ooh-ee, I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by

Standin' at the crossroad, baby, risin' sun goin' down
Standin' at the crossroad, baby, eee-eee, risin' sun goin' down
I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin' down

You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown
You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown
That I got the crossroad blues this mornin', Lord, babe, I'm sinkin' down

And I went to the crossroad, mama, I looked east and west
I went to the crossroad, baby, I looked East and West
Lord, I didn't have no sweet woman, ooh well, babe, in my distress

Crossroads is regarded as a song that set America’s fascination with the blues in motion.