Study Guide

Cross Road Blues

Cross Road Blues Introduction

In a Nutshell

A young Delta blues man, short on talent and long on ambition, arrived at a crossroads 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.

Looks like we're in for some A+ ghost stories. 

About the Song

ArtistJohnson, Robert
Year1936
LabelVocalion Records/AMC
Writer(s)Robert Johnson
Producer(s)Frank Driggs
Musician(s)Robert Johnson (vocals, guitar)
Learn to playTablature
Album"Cross Road Blues" (Single)

Music Video

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Influences on Johnson, Robert

Tommy Johnson
Son House
Charley Patton
Lonnie Johnson
Kokomo Arnold
Skip James

Influenced by Johnson, Robert

Muddy Waters
Eric Clapton
Bob Dylan
Jimi Hendrix
Ry Cooder
Elmore James
The Rolling Stones
Cream

Cross Road Blues Resources

Books

Tom Graves, Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson (2008)
This biography's complete with an introduction by controversial Johnson expert Steve LaVere.

Peter Guralnick, Searching for Robert Johnson (1998)
This is a short primer on the life and legend of Robert Johnson that does more to stoke the flames of the mystery than to dispel the myth. It's a fun read, especially for fans.

Patricia Schroeder, Robert Johnson, Mythmaking and Contemporary American Culture (2004)
This book delves into the elements of Robert Johnson's life that have the least to do with, well, Robert Johnson's actual life. Schroeder argues that the Devil legend has become more and more significant in recent years, and then asks why.

Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (2004)
The author deals not only with Johnson's obscure biography, but with the fascinating development of the myth surrounding Johnson and the mainstream perception of the entire history of the blues.

Albums

Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (1990)
This is the one and only album for Johnson fans to own.

Images

Robert Johnson's Photo Booth Self-Portrait
The only two known images of Johnson were unearthed in recent decades. For years, people worshipped him without even knowing what he looked like. As a result, the existing images are very, very valuable. This one gives a great view of his famously long fingers.

Robert Johnson's Studio Portrait
This is the only photo we have of him that shows his full body. Scholars believe he must have borrowed the suit he's wearing, since he probably wouldn't have been able to afford it on his own.

A Possible Third Portrait
This picture, which may be a photo of Robert Johnson with Johnny Shines, was "discovered" by a guitar salesperson and sold to the Johnson estate in 2005. However, since Johnny Shines has passed away and others who knew him couldn't confirm that it was Robert, the photo's authenticity has been unconfirmed and hotly debated. 

Movies & TV

Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life and Music of Robert Johnson (1998)
This docu-drama narrated by none other than Danny Glover covers all the basics of the Johnson legend and biography.

The Search for Robert Johnson (1992)
This short documentary was the exploration of John Hammond, Jr., the son of producer John Hammond who first re-released Johnson's work in 1961. It's both a fascinating account of some of the tall tales surrounding Johnson, and a record of Hammond's personal adventure.

Crossroads (1986)
This once-popular drama is based heavily on the legend of Robert Johnson.

Websites

Robert Johnson's Official Site
This site is maintained by the estate belonging to Johnson's son Claud Johnson, who finally got possession of Johnson's estate nearly 60 years after his father's death.

The Legend of Faust
Here's an interesting and authoritative website entirely devoted to the legend of Faust and its offshoots.

Frank DiGiacomo, "Searching for Robert Johnson," Vanity Fair (2008)
Here's a great story on Robert Johnson's mysterious life and death, complete with interviews.

Jesse Gress, "10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Robert Johnson," Guitar Player (2010)
Here's some advice from Guitar Player on how to imitate Johnson's deceptively complex guitar playing.

Video & Audio

"Cross Road Blues"
Even Robert Johnson has a Vevo.

"The Crossroads Myth of Robert Johnson" (2011)
Robert Johnson's grandson talks about the myth of his grandfather, the "King of the Devil Blues."

"Crossroads" Podcast Episode by Radiolab (2012)
For a solid half hour, you can listen to the myths about Robert Johnson with Radiolab's well-done episode.