Imagine, standing at the crossroads, looming pale full moon in the background against the dread dark skies, a lonely figure, on his knees and begging for mercy. The images conjured up by “Cross Road Blues,” or “Crossroads” as it came to be known after the awesome rendering by Eric Clapton and the rest of Cream, are as powerful as any produced in rock music this side of the whimsical, mind-altering numbers of Sgt. Pepper’s era Beatles.
Written and recorded by Delta-blues master Robert Johnson in 1936, it is near impossible to separate the harrowing song from the grand mythology of Johnson’s life-changing encounter with the devil. Although the tune doesn’t specifically reference the devil, there is an air of menace and demonic power all about the tortured performance by the legendary blues figure. The song is a staple in the blues and rock repertoire, and those who have been influenced by it have churned out a seemingly infinite string of cover performances of this unrelenting masterpiece.
So the story goes that Johnson was not much of a musical talent to begin with, with lackluster guitar skills making him almost a laughingstock on the blues circuit. Johnson would come to watch performances by figures like Son House, and Johnson would himself pick up the guitar during their set breaks. The story goes that he made such an awful cacophony with the instrument that he would be asked to leave the establishment if he insisted on playing that racket. It continues that to overcome his deficiencies as a musician, he went out one night to the famous crossroads and met with the very devil himself. When Johnson expressed his wish to the infernal nemesis, the devil took Johnson’s guitar into his demonic hands and strummed a few nasty chords. When the guitar was handed back to Johnson, he suddenly possessed the incredible wealth of musical talent we now know him to have.
It has been argued that the lyrics of Cross Road Blues don’t have any relation to any devil dealing at all. I’m not sure that’s quite true. Take these lyrics, for example:
You can run, you can run
tell my friend-boy Willie Brown
Lord, that I’m standin’ at the crossroad, babe I believe I’m sinkin’ down
What does he mean by I’m sinking down? I’m not implying that there’s any literal interpretation to be found here, that Johnson’s eternal soul is supposed to be sinking down into Hell. But, I think there’s a strong case to be made that he’s speaking of losing his soul in some sense – in a moral sense, perhaps. As darkness descends over the lone figure, he recognizes his own character flaws – whatever they may be – taking over. The crossroad can be understood as a moral metaphor in this case – the place where one has to decide what kind of person he is going to be.
But there’s also reference to the fact that the singer doesn’t have a woman. How does that fit into the picture here? I think one way to think about it is that the woman represents the lighter side, the good side, the angelic presence that keeps the singer out of trouble. But without this guiding presence by his side, he is at a true crossroads where he must decide for himself how he is going to be.
The devil and Robert Johnson saga remains one of the most potent mythologies of the popular music canon from the past century. It speaks to our deepest desires as people, that we are willing to do anything, even sell our immortal spirit, for the sake of talent, wealth, and fame. In an era of 24-7 celebrity newscycles and an ever increasing inundation of reality television, one might see a nation full of Robert Johnsons – though I, for one, have significantly less talent. Perhaps that’s why the song has a kind of timeless power over us. We are all deep down just like Robert Johnson, standing at the crossroads with our world in the balance.
– Brian R.