Just before the turn of the 20th century, the blues emerged as a unique musical genre wrought with emotion, namely angst. Pioneered by African American musicians in the Deep South, struggling to deal with a still incredibly cruel post-war America, the blues drew influence from spirituals, work songs, chants, and other musical traditions from the slavery era.
It employed novel chord progressions, the call-and-response form, and “walking” bass lines that create the “groove”. Blues lyrics began to incorporate the signature “AAB” format, where the first line is repeated once before the second, as you’ll see with today’s highlighted piece — Robert Johnson’s classic blues track “The Crossroad”.
Robert Johnson (1911–1938) was an early 20th century blues singer and a legend in his own right, cited as a notable influence on other phenomenal blues and blues-rock artists. He is perhaps best-known, though, for this song and the legend that surrounds it.
He tells his story from his perspective, though we can’t be sure if he’s talking about himself or writing as a character.
The story begins with a man despondent, begging for the grace of God to help him. He finds his way to the “crossroads”, a fitting place to be presented with a consequential choice.
“I went down to the crossroad, I got down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad, I got down on my knees
Asked the lord above ‘Have mercy now, save poor Bob if you please
Robert waited at the crossroads for a sign and… nothing happened. His prayers fell on deaf ears, it seemed; or the ears of an unexpected recipient. As the story goes, the devil himself appeared, offering Robert a deal — talent, fame, and fortune in return for one thing. His soul.
“Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, risin’ sun goin’ down
Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, eee, eee, risin’ sun goin’ down
I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down”
We don’t know if he took too much time to think, or hesitated, only that he eventually agreed. The sun soon sets on Robert, a metaphor for the light (God) exiting his life after his unholy bargain. “I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down” is Robert’s realization, or confession perhaps, that he too, is sinking down — toward Hell, presumably.
Though the legend of the deal is myth, the following is true, and that’s where it gets interesting. For a few years, he enjoyed his fame. He was a superstar, renowned by his contemporaries as an near-otherworldly talent.
But it couldn’t last. At just 27 years old, his life was cut short — allegedly poisoned by a jealous husband whose wife Johnson flirted with, though nobody knows the true nature of his death. Perhaps the devil got his due after all.
Recognized for its influence throughout the years, “The Crossroads” received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. Cream covered the song in the 1960s, and Tha Crossroads, released by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony in 1996 explores similar themes.
The point of the story, other than being just plain spooky and fascinating, is that the very mystique surrounding Johnson’s life and death imparts more meaning onto the song itself. These anecdotes give us more ways to connect with music other than just listening to it.
Clearly this has interested people who enjoy music in numerous ways and numerous media over time: While books reigned for years, the paperback rock bios mentioned earlier gave way to TV shows, like VH1’s ‘Behind the Music’, which gave way to sites like Genius and podcasts like Song Exploder and Dissect. Vox’s ‘Explained’ series has some great musically-inclined articles, such as this background on Mariah Carey’s greatest gift to humanity, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the godfather medium of musical discussion and broadcasting — radio. The humble radio, still ubiquitous but facing serious advertising challenges, brought voices and music to the masses like never before. No faces, but there was still the oral tradition — One quality I most admire of any radio DJ is the ability to weave stories and facts about the songs they play into their shows, and to tell them with personality. As so many stations play similar tracks, i.e. Top 40 hits especially, contextualizing the music being played is key to keep your audience hooked on that specific station, or even that specific DJ.
Such is my aim — when you visit this page, I want you to learn something interesting about music you may never have been exposed to before. I want you to think more about the backstory. I want you to feel compelled maybe to try out some new genres or artists you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. And most importantly, I want you to feel connected to and inspired by music with the same passion that I have always shared, because I think it’s one of the most powerful things in the world.
(Image credit: The New Jazz Archive)