If I had to pick one person to represent Delta blues at the peak of its expression, it would be Robert Johnson.
Saying that he was a superlative guitar player, impassioned singer and masterful lyricist seems barely adequate to convey the importance of the work he accomplished in his 27 years. Many of his songs became not only blues standards but would be a huge influence on rock music.
Although the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the Crossroads is ingrained in blues lore, it was actually his predecessor Tommy Johnson who lays claim to the story. (See last week's BTM)
There is too much to go into in this blog post, but a good short biography of Robert Johnson is at All Music Guide.
Incorporation of styles
Robert Johnson recorded “Crossroads Blues” in 1936, and it shows the amazing interplay between his guitar and voice: The guitar swooping in and around his vocals. Something that distinguished him from the other great blues players of the day was his ability to incorporate different styles of music into his own expression.
He remained relatively unknown until the 1960’s when his recordings were finally available, and groups like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were bringing his songs to a wider audience. The rock trio Cream (Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker) recorded “Crossroads” in 1968, not just emulating Johnson’s version, but taking the song into the fully electrified world of rock.
Eric Clapton called Robert Johnson “the most important blues singer who ever lived."
The many versions
Unfortunately, no YouTube in the 60’s, but here’s a clip of Cream performing live in 2007:
Ry Cooder is well known for working in different styles of American folk and rock, and his version of “Crossroads” combines elements of gospel, funk and rock. This track is from the soundtrack to the 1986 feature film “Crossroads.”
In 2009 pop singer John Mayer reworked the song for his CD "Battle Studies," to my ear using some elements from the Johnson original as well as hints of the Cream version.
Here is a live clip of Eric Clapton jamming on “Crossroads” with John Mayer:
Here are the full versions of “Crossroads” tracked through time:
1936: “Cross Road Blues” Robert Johnson
1968: “Crossroads” Cream
1986: “Crossroads” Ry Cooder
2009: “Crossroads” John Mayer
“The Blues Time Machine” is a weekly feature tracking one great blues song through time. The series is hosted by John Kessler, from KPLU’s “All Blues.”