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Intro

A young Delta blues man, short on talent and long on ambition, went to a crossroad at midnight on a moonless night. As he stood in miserable silence, the Devil appeared in the form of a large man and tapped on his shoulder. The man took Robert Johnson’s guitar from his hands and tuned it perfectly for him. The singer gave his soul to the devil, and in exchange, he played desperate, crooning, moving blues music perfectly for the rest of his days.

At least, that's how the story goes.

Although Robert Johnson sings about God, not the devil, in his 1936 recording, "Cross Road Blues," speculation about how he got his eerie talent has been rampant since his own lifetime. Read on to find more about the facts of this song, and about the fabulous fictions, too.

About the Song

ArtistRobert Johnson Musician(s)Robert Johnson (vocals, guitar)
Album
Year1936
LabelVocalion Records/AMC
Writer(s)Robert Johnson
Producer(s)Frank Driggs
Learn to play: Tablature
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Shmoop Connections

Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
The story has more than one beginning, but the ending is always the same: the young bluesman who played like a man possessed died at age 27 under mysterious circumstances, probably poisoned to death at a crossroad juke joint in rural Mississippi. He had become one of the most talented guitar players who ever lived, but he was also known for chasing after women, getting in fights, and changing his name in every new town. These days, Robert Johnson is a key figure in the history of blues, but to understand the myths surrounding “Cross Road Blues,” we have to follow a road almost as twisted as the satanic pact that supposedly started it all.

Although he died in 1938, Johnson didn’t gain widespread fame until the 1960s, when hippies got into blues music. It was in that folksy, psychedelic age that the strangest stories of Robert Johnson took flight: that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, that he was poisoned to death (or shot, or stabbed) by a jealous ex (or ex's boyfriend, or ex's father), and that he spent his life pursued by hellhounds. People said he had a "funny eye," a travel bug, and a drinking problem, and that before he died he was seen on all fours, foaming at the mouth and growling like a dog. "Cross Road Blues" is tagged as Johnson's own account of the devilish dealings that led to all this Hollywood-worthy mystery and intrigue—but even that might just be a piece of lore.

On the Charts

Robert Johnson was not a very famous musician during his own lifetime. His biggest regional hit, “Terraplane Blues,” sold about 5,000 copies.

It was long after his death that Johnson achieved widespread fame, and “Cross Road Blues” is now Johnson’s biggest hit. It has been covered by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Cream, Van Halen, and even Journey.

The 1968 version by Cream is #409 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

With the 1990 release of his Complete Recordings, Johnson became the biggest-selling singer of pre-war blues (blues composed between 1920 and 1940). The double album, containing every surviving recording including two takes of “Cross Road Blues,” sold over a million copies more than 50 years after it was first recorded.
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