I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the lord above “Have mercy now
save poor Bob if you please”
If I were combing the land to find the greatest blues / blues-rock songs ever written and recorded, Crossroads would be on the shortlist. Written by the incomparable blues legend Robert Johnson, it was originally recorded on Friday, November 27, 1936 in San Antonio Texas. It has become one of the powerhouse entries in the blues repertoire, and its fame and status have only been increased by the blues-rock rendition played by Cream in the 1960s. But many other artists have performed the song since Johnson and Cream’s landmark recordings. I wanted to look a few of the more prominent cover versions of the song. Not all great, all of these variations at least deserve a few listens and have some elements to recommend them.
To start with, is Joe Bonamassa’s rendition with Zakk Wylde of Black Sabbath fame and of the band Black Label Society. Watching these two guitarists do their thing on this tune is like a fireworks spectacular. It’s especially interesting to listen to their widely contrasting styles, with Wylde’s rapid-fire pyrotechnics heavily influenced by his metal background, contrasting nicely with the more deliberate, methodical blues jamming from Joe.
5. Ry Cooder: Ry Cooder has had an impressive career in music. Born in 1947 in Los Angeles, he is a multi-instrumentalist but primarily known for his multi-faceted, engaging slide guitar work. Some of the illustrious artists he’s collaborated with include Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and the Doobie Brothers. He also produced the highly successful Buena Vista Social Club album in 1997, to great acclaim. His success as a guitarist is made tangible by his inclusion on “greatest guitarist” lists published by both Rolling Stone magazine and by Gibson.
If you’re a fan of amusingly over-the-top gospel-influenced background vocals, this is the version of Crossroads for you. It doesn’t really work for me, although Cooder is a professional singer and guitarist, and underneath the somewhat silly veneer, there’s a solid performance of Crossroads. The main problem is that the underlying song is so great that you don’t need a lot of extra fat to beef it up. This track is terribly overproduced, but it would be interesting to hear what Cooder could do with this song in a minimalist context. I think it’d be rather solid.
4. John Mayer: John Mayer started his career as a troubadour of acoustic guitar-based adult contemporary ballads that could send thirteen year old girls into a Dionysian frenzy, but before long he was busting out the blues riffs and establishing his credentials with the blues elites. After beginning with some unnecesssary noodling on the guitar, his rendition of Crossroads is smooth, slick, and polished, although that’s not what one necessarily really wants in a performance of the gritty blues staple. Medium-bodied, medium-tempo, with gentle harmonies and a bit of a crunch in the guitar tone, this is Crossroads with a brand new pop shine. It’s pleasant enough to listen to, including the guitar solo, but doesn’t feature any of the fire or menace that is the essential heart of this particular classic. It’s almost too breezy. But, if you’re seeking a two and a half minute light rock take on Crossroads, this will get the job done, though I wouldn’t expect it to send you into a frenzy of your own. Mayer takes a sweet solo in the middle, reminding everyone how respected he is as a blues guitarist, and definitely making this clip worth a watch. I’m just not crazy about the performance otherwise. There’s no fire in its belly.
3. Phish: Carrying on the torch from The Grateful Dead, Phish early on established themselves as the Godzilla of the contemporary jam-rocks scene. They dabble in a multiplicity of musical styles, from funk to folk-country to jazz-rock, and can slide from one to another with ease. They are also known for their plethora of covers, so it is not too shocking that they would choose to take on this classic blues rock gem.The jam-heavy modern rock heavyweights can sure play, although they restrain themselves from turning this live cover into a 23-minute epic and play it pretty much straight although there is some genuinely great guitar soloing from Trey Anastasio. This piece sounds like vintage Phish, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, there are little things about this track that bother me. Trey’s guitar tone sounds somewhat milquetoast compared with some of his competitors, and I don’t particularly like the lower key they transcribed this song into. But it’s definitely worth some listens. These are quibbles though. It’s a nice performance.
2. Robert Johnson: Robert Johnson probably didn’t actually sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads, though it makes for a fabulous story, as discussed here in a previous blog. Regardless, this song is as legendary as that supernatural tall tale. What this man can do with a guitar, a slide, and his own voice is nothing short of astonishing, which is why he is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century period.Right from the first line, I went down to the crossroad /
fell down on my knees, your heart absolutely aches and break for Johnson. What are the sins of his past that he’s running from? The song is almost as enigmatic as the real life man himself. But whatever it is, you get the feeling Johnson is more afraid of what happens after death to the soul rather than the fear of Earthly torments. Some critics are not so sure of this, speculating that the lyrics may partially refer to the fear of anti-black discrimination in the south, including discriminatory laws and even lynchings. There’s probably a bit of truth in both interpretations, but one thing that is certain is that this song came from a deep, dark, somewhat tortured space in the musician’s soul. But as brilliant and timeless as this cut is, it doesn’t take my top spot on this countdown…
1. Cream – Is it blasphemy to rank this #1 ahead of Johnson’s version? It might be, but I’ve always been a bit of a sinner. The thing is, this isn’t a better performance than Johnson’s, though I think it’s just as good. But whereas I don’t necessarily think Crossroads is the very peak of Johnson’s artistic output, as phenomenal as it is, this is 60s blues rock at its highest summit. Baker pounds the skins like a madman, Bruce holds down the bass groove, and Clapton is absolutely blistering in his vocals-and-guitar mastery. Clapton played the song back in his days with the Mayall Bluesbreakers band, and kept it in the repertoire for his time with Cream . It’s not a straight cover of Johnson’s original, but actually a mashup of two Johnson tunes: “Cross Road Blues” and “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Of the song, Clapton himself has said, “It became, then, a question of finding something that had a riff, a form that could be interpreted, simply, in a band format. In ‘Crossroads’ there was a very definite riff. He [Johnson] was playing it full-chorded with the slide as well. I just took it on a single string or two strings and embellished it. Out of all of the songs it was the easiest for me to see as a rock and roll vehicle.” The riff itself is sublime, perfection, it’s better than “Sunshine of Your Love” and I’ll defend that claim any day.I also love Clapton’s vocals here, which are full of swagger and force. If there are various bridges between rock and blues, then this is the Brooklyn or the Golden Gate. Cream was born to play this song and they makes this song so much their own that it’s overwhelming in its power and influence. Not only is this one of my favorite blues-rock songs of the moment, it’s one of my favorites of all time. To me, it deserves the top spot here unconditionally and with question.
– Brian R.