Friday, March 11, 2011

March 11: Robert Johnson, "Cross Road Blues"

Artist: Robert Johnson
Song: "Cross Road Blues"
Album: Cross Road Blues (single)
Year: 1937

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though every style of music has its fair share of important and iconic figures, there is always one performer who stands out above the rest, and this individual almost always defines the style itself.  While the genre itself may have changed in a number of ways as the decades passed, it is that originator, that pioneering sound that never seems to age.  Whether it is due to the purity of sound or the way in which a performer may have changed the musical landscape, it is often difficult to define "why" that person is so much more important, but there is rarely a question of whether or not they are worthy of such a status.  With this in mind, though there were a number of massively important performers in the early development of the blues, none have the mythical status held by the one and only Robert Johnson.  In every aspect, it is Johnson's handful of recordings that define blues music at its finest, and even more than seventy years after his passing, his songs still remain as powerful as they were upon first release.  This is all the evidence one needs to cement his legacy as "the" blues icon, and one can experience his subtle mastery on any of the countless collections of his music that have been created over the decades.  With a catalog as superb as his, it is absolutely impossible to single out one song as his "best," but everything that has earned him this reputation can be experienced in Robert Johnson's 1937 recording, "Cross Road Blues."

The key to the sound of Robert Johnson lives within the simplicity of his music, as there are virtually no recordings where there is anything more than the man and his guitar.  Furthermore, the tone with which he plays is instantly recognizable, and this is due both to his distinctive playing style, as well as the limitations of recording technology when he placed these amazing songs on records.  "Cross Road Blues" can be argued as his finest recorded performance on guitar, as it is without question one of the more complex arrangements in the Robert Johnson catalog.  Though the song begins with his signature "twang," it quickly turns into one of the most beautifully melodic and unquestionably catchy progressions that he ever recorded.  It is the way in which his guitar playing is so simple in sound, yet is amazingly complex for the time period that demands so much respect, and many have even gone as far as comparing this progression to great classical pieces in terms of its innovation and overall structure.  Within this amazing playing, there is an almost overwhelming amount of emotion that comes through in his playing, and his guitar helps to heighten the overall mood set forth on the song.  There are times during "Cross Road Blues" where his guitar almost seems to be a second vocalist, offering a fantastic compliment to Johnson's voice.  While the guitar of Robert Johnson is always as important as his vocals, it is the sound on "Cross Road Blues" that proves what an exceptional talent he was in both of these areas.

Throughout all of "Cross Road Blues," one term that keeps coming to mind is the word "balance," and it is in this idea that one can fully appreciate the absolutely stunning vocals of Robert Johnson.  For a number of reasons, Johnson can still lay claim to the most straightforward and raw vocals ever recorded, and there is perhaps no other voice in history that better defines the blues as a genre.  Working the entire vocal scale, Johnson moans and cries across "Cross Road Blues," and yet there is an almost haunting pain and nervousness that can also be heard within his singing.  There are moments on "Cross Road Blues" where Johnson's vocals seem to almost transcend human emotion, and they convey a power and feeling that has never been matched since his recording.  It is this element that has vaulted Robert Johnson to the mythical status that he retains to this day, and yet even without it, the way in which he sings makes it clear just how close he was to the lyrics presented on each song.  This proximity to his lyrics runs throughout all of his songs, and yet "Cross Road Blues" can be interpreted on a number of different levels.  While most prefer to hear the song as one of the many links to the "sold his soul to the devil" myth of Johnson, many interpret the song as a commentary on race at the time, hearing it as Johnson trying to find his way home late at night to avoid lynching or a similar fate.  Yet there is a pain and loneliness in his voice that goes beyond words, and it is this factor that makes the song so extraordinary, regardless of how one wishes to interpret the lyrics.

Taking all of this into account, it is quickly understandable how and why Robert Johnson remains in the almost saintly status that he does today, as one can easily argue that music simply does not get more moving or honest than one finds on "Cross Road Blues."  The way in which Johnson perfectly balances the sound of his guitar with his pained, almost tortured vocals represents everything that makes blues music so special, and though many have tried, no artist since has been able to come even remotely close to this combination of sounds and emotions.  Furthermore, one cannot deny the massive amount of myth that has come to surround the name Robert Johnson since his passing in 1938, and "Cross Road Blues" can easily be taken as one of the central parts of these great stories.  Those who wish to believe in the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the devil in exchange for musical ability can easily use this song as another reference to the incident, seeing "Cross Road Blues" as Johnson traveling home from that incident.  However, even without this idea, the song remains just as powerful and beautiful, and it is this fact that solidifies the overall greatness of Johnson and his music.  Further adding to his legend, it is quite literally impossible to cite all of the artists who have covered or taken pieces of "Cross Road Blues" over the decades, and this proves his lasting and wide-reaching impact.  Though every song he ever recorded is absolutely legendary, one can experience the great Robert Johnson in perhaps his finest hour on his magnificent 1937 recording, "Cross Road Blues."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Awesome talent that shone the light for those who followed.
Just follow this track with Hendrix playing Voodoo Chile(slight return) and the influence is there for all to hear.