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Both recorded versions of "Cross Road Blues" demonstrate Johnson's crooning, crushing singing style and fearsome guitar skills, still imitated by blues and rock and roll musicians to this day.
Spin, Rolling Stone, and Guitar World have all granted Johnson posthumous ratings as one of the greatest guitar players of all time. Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton are some of the more famous names to spend their lives trying to emulate Robert Johnson.
Clapton is the most intense about it. After he heard Johnson, he says, "I realized that, on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man's example would be my life's work" (source).
But unless you're a pre-seasoned blues buff, the reason for all the hype can be hard to hear in the simple recordings that make up Johnson's tiny oeuvre.
But Clapton explains it well, saying Johnson is "simultaneously playing a disjointed bass line on the low strings, rhythm on the middle strings, and lead on the treble strings while singing at the same time." Or, in the words of a less exacting critic, "When you get to 'Crossroads' and 'Preachin' Blues,' oh my God, forget it. It sounds like three guys playing." (Source)
In other words, the sound is simple, but the technique is incredibly difficult to learn.
"Cross Road Blues" really does sound like it could be three guitars playing. In its simple brilliance, the song has all the typical features of a Robert Johnson tune. The guitar is tuned in open A tuning, which allows him to use a slide—usually a glass "bottleneck" slide in those days—on the open strings.
As he riffs on the slide on the high strings, he's strumming the "dun-ta-dun-ta" sound known as the boogie shuffle. The boogie sound is now an easily recognizable signature of blues music. Although he didn't come up with it himself, Johnson's recordings have become classic, and "Cross Road Blues" demonstrates the early use of the common boogie sound. You'll also note that while the song is mostly in 4/4 time, Johnson isn't afraid to throw in a 5/4 measure or two for the sake of his quavering guitar solos, another typical element of his creativity.
As for the singing, a webpage about how to play like Robert Johnson advises that you "gotta sing like you've got hellhounds on your trail."
Another commentator says Johnson sounds "like he's about five minutes away from the electric chair." Even if you don't believe in possession by the Devil, there's something guttural and desperate about the singing that captivates people and that few have been able to imitate.
Rolling Stone called him the "undisputed king of the Mississippi Delta blues singers" (source).
But they were wrong. At least about the undisputed part.
While Robert Johnson's striking body of work has been admired and obsessed over by wide audiences since its first re-release in 1961, the debate among scholars—if not among avid blues fans—over his real influence has become more and more heated.
The Johnson boom began in the 1960s, when music and pop culture were experiencing the early excitement of racial integration. Young white musicians were suddenly idealizing and emulating Black musicians—the dominant worlds of rock and roll and folk all had origins in music pioneered by Black artists, especially the blues. For many white people, Black culture in the Deep South, the home of the blues, was a distant, "exotic" world, one that they were learning about for the first time. At the same time, white freedom riders were joining Black people in the south to fight alongside them against the racist brutality they had long endured.
But the progress made by the Civil Rights Movement was hard-earned and uneasy, and sometimes that idealization went too far and ended up reinforcing racial stereotypes. To its newer audiences, "blues" became a special kind of "Black music" with a primal, dark quality that white people could only hope to imitate. Robert Johnson, a genius in his own right, became something more: a symbol of a fascinating, violent, sexual and distant world that was the home of an especially "authentic" kind of music, the Delta blues.
As one of Johnson's biographers puts it in the documentary The Search for Robert Johnson, "Of all the figures who beckoned to us from a remote, mysterious, and foreign past—certainly it was a past that was not our own—Robert Johnson stood out, tantalized, really, in a way that no other myth or archetype has ever done."
It was impossible to separate the love of his music from the love of his image, and it's difficult to separate his image from a long history of racial segregation.
Johnson's image seemed to take on a life of its own. Biographer Peter Guralnick says, "Robert Johnson became the personification of the existential blues singer, unencumbered by corporeality or history, a fiercely incandescent spirit who had escaped the bonds of tradition by the sheer thrust of genius." (Source)
Kind of a tall order for a man about whom we still know virtually nothing.
Recently, some writers have begun to tackle the issue of the Robert Johnson image head-on. A 2004 book by Elijah Wald argued that "Johnson's primacy was largely a creation of white fans a music critics of the 1960s" (source).
Wald studied Johnson's fanbase closely, and found that the new blues fans in the '60s wanted to see the blues as a sort of primal folk music at the roots of rock and roll. He argues that blues was essentially pop music, not folk, and that Johnson had been a minor figure among a slew of struggling professional musicians. Hits that sounded almost exactly like Johnson's had emerged before his time; his influence was a later creation. Wald argues that the Faustian-Devil legend was of more interest to later white critics than early Black listeners, and says that the story only resurged after a 1966 interview with Son House.
When the folksy 1960s crew got a hold of the idea of blues music, they reimagined it as folk music that came out of plantation workers singing in the fields and rambling bluesmen hopping trains from town to town. Largely because so little was known about him, Johnson was a perfect hero for this new vision of the blues.
"He lived hard, played like a man possessed and died young—at around 27—in mysterious circumstances," The New York Times recounts. "No wonder he appealed to the Jim Morrison generation." (Source)
Some blues historians find this argument appealing because it shows a proper respect for the development of blues music, shifting the history away from focusing on one hero while forgetting countless others of arguably equal talent. And it's true that in Johnson's day blues was a type of popular music sung by professional musicians, not a "rootsy" folk music.
''There are problems with the idea of the blues as a roots music,'' one researcher told the Times. ''Because if so, then rock 'n' roll is the flower [...] Blues is a music in and of itself.'' (Source)
In the pantheon of professional blues singers of his own time, Robert Johnson was a striving minor star.
There are also problems with Wald's version of history. It may be true that white hippies idealized or "invented" the folksy rambling bluesman in their own minds. But Muddy Waters, a mainstream figure in his own right, was among many blues stars who really did grow up working and singing on plantations before making it big in Chicago.
And countless other Delta blues singers actually traveled by freight trains and lived hard lives, quite simply because Black people had little access to money, transportation, doctors, or protection from violence in the Deep South at that time. They may have aspired to fame and wealth, just like Robert Johnson did. But most of them did not "make it." The fact that Johnson wasn't a big figure in his time can't be a complete argument against his genius or significance.
Whether or not Johnson's story is a creation of the popular imagination, in the pantheon of mythological cultural figures, Robert Johnson is a guiding light, and remains the king of the Delta blues singers. And unlike historians, big fans of blues music are generally not jumping all over the chance to diminish Johnson's importance, though they may be guilty of over-hyping the paranormal parts of his biography.
Historians have the responsibility to seek the "truth" in Johnson's biography, but for fans and theorists the story can still be a choose-your-own-adventure and an unsolved mystery. If all of us were responsible for getting to the bottom of things, we wouldn't have nearly as many great stories to tell, and "Cross Road Blues" probably wouldn't be a song about the Devil anymore, and what fun would that be?
If you lean toward the historians and want to pull apart how all of Johnson's stories and identities have been created and recreated in popular culture, check out Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture, by Patricia Schroeder.
Is "Cross Road Blues" a historical account, a metaphorical vision, or the makings of an influential bit of satanic folklore? The best thing about the writing seems to be that it can still be interpreted as all three.
As a historical account, some have suggested that "Cross Road Blues" is actually about Johnson's anxiety about being a Black man out alone on the side of the road at night. The song, they say, reflects a fear of violence from white people in the rural, Depression-era south.
Trying to hitch a ride at night in rural Mississippi—where, as Johnson's friend Johnny Shines said himself, it was "open season on black people" (source)—could certainly be dangerous. And most African Americans didn't have cars or enough money to travel by train. Traveling musicians like Johnson regularly hopped freight trains and hitched rides, despite the danger, quite simply because they had no choice. The fear of racist violence, including lynching, was very real, and became the subject of other important songs from that era.
But in this case, reading the song as a literal account about hitchhiking probably underestimates Johnson as a songwriter. We think Johnson's songs are more like works of literature than accounts of history. In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway uses an old man's struggle with the natural world as an extended allegory for the human struggle with identity and memory. Life of Pi, Yann Martel's tall tale about a little boy stranded on a raft with a Bengal tiger, becomes a tale about perseverance, trauma, and the power of storytelling.
If we read the song as a metaphor, a crossroads is a site of crisis and suffering, where Johnson goes to God for mercy and to try to "flag a ride" to a new phase in his life.
Johnson was a strong metaphorical songwriter, so the idea that the song's about a metaphorical crossroads is pretty feasible. But he also knew that there was longstanding southern lore about the crossroads. A story about a pact with the Devil at the crossroads was already associated with other blues musicians, including Tommy Johnson, an older contemporary of Robert's. The (Christian) idea that musicians, especially blues musicians, were no-good troublemaking hobos who did the Devil's work contributed to the individual stories of possession and nighttime pacts.
No one is sure whether Johnson ever affirmed, repeated, or even knew about the Devil legend. But at least some have said that Robert Johnson did little to distance himself from the fantastic tale that he sold his soul at the crossroads. Instead, he played it up, according to the documentary The Search for Robert Johnson.
It seems he told his ex-girlfriend Willie Mae Powell that the rumors were true. He may have told other girlfriends the same thing, but first-person records of Johnson's life are hard to come by. Other songs of his, like "Me and the Devil Blues," do more than just hint that Johnson communed with Satan. It's this last interpretation of the crossroads that's the most widely accepted even if it's the least plausible.
Johnson's old friend Honeyboy Edwards gives us a way out of the conundrum, saying, "It may be Robert could have sold himself to the devil. In the way he was, the way he played and acted, he could have felt that he sold his soul. A special feeling could have hit him like he done that and that feeling come out in his music." (Source)
The legend has emotional truth, if not literal truth, and for those who want to make Johnson's poetry into Johnson's biography, the literal truth is still a possibility.