The Legend of the Crossroad

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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)

Tumbling Rock Intro – Side B

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As my tastes evolved, so did my own attempts at playing music myself. Playing is in my blood — My dad never did, but my aunt and uncles on my mom’s side are all incredibly gifted. Watching them play annual family concerts at reunions, I grew up inspired, each of them skilled in their own right at blues guitar, harmonica, singing, songwriting, piano, drums, and composition. My late uncle Gene was one of the greatest fingerpicking blues guitarists I’ve ever seen, and could solo with the harmonica on top of it like he were Bob Dylan himself.

With this variety of influence, I began experimenting. Like lots of kids, I took piano lessons young but didn’t stick to it. With Squidward Tentacles and Kenny G as inspirations, I even tried my hand at clarinet in the middle school band, but that too was short lived. I mainly enjoyed being able to make a foghorn sort of noise with the thing.

My first real love was the guitar. I picked it up around age 10, took a few lessons from a great guy at a local music shop, then taught myself once I knew a few chords and basic music theory. The first song I ever learned to play was “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” from Van Halen’s eponymous debut album (1978), and begged my teacher to show me “Master of Puppets” from the Metallica album of the same name (1986), but he thought it would be too difficult. I went home and learned it anyway.

Through the years after I dabbled in piano, drums when and where I could, and a bit of singing. Currently I’m learning Ableton and producing mostly house music in my spare time. Even if nothing I do ever makes it out, the creative release of writing and performing is what drives me to keep at it. I’m almost constantly listening to, critiquing, and playing music, and I’d spend even more time on it if I weren’t working full-time. It gives me a purpose like other things just don’t.

Okay, but what’s so great about music, anyway?

Music has the power to heal, to drive us insane, to transport us back into our memories or to places unimagined before. It inspires the full range of emotion, the variety of it a perfect complement to the various scenarios, moods, and places we are bound to find ourselves in throughout life.

And that’s just for listening. The ability of people, animals, and even natural phenomena to create pleasing, musical sounds is almost universally celebrated. It’s hard to deny how amazing it is to witness beautiful music flow from somebody, and you can see when musicians really lose themselves in it and let the expression happen as if they’re in some trance state. Watch this footage of a young Carlos Santana, maybe 16 years old, at Woodstock and tell me that doesn’t resemble a spiritual experience (he was also on acid at the time, but do with that what you will).

As such, music seems otherworldly, come from a higher plane to grace us here on Earth with its majesty. This is what inspires such fascination with musical origin stories — we can’t believe where it’s come from and we want to know more about it, as if its natural occurrence were unbelievable. That’s the feeling I have, and the same one I hope to inspire.

I hope you’ll tune in each Friday at 12:00 PM Pacific, plus special editions where I’ll explore new music that I’ve been feeling, older tracks that deserve some love, album reviews, concert and festival previews/recaps, playlists, mixes, original tracks and more but most importantly — telling the stories of all this music that deserve to be told.

(Image Credit: Miguel Á. Pedriñán)

Tumbling Rock Intro - Side A

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First thing’s first…

You might be wondering a few things. “Am I really going to have the time or patience to read this?” or “What’s the point of another music blog?” … “Where am I?”

In order; I‘m not sure, research suggests people barely read a lot of what they see online. I do hope you stick around, though.

The point is to shed light on the less-exposed features of music — what inspired the artists creating it, what might have been going through their head, and other interesting facts that contribute, holistically, to the whole atmosphere around a track that can become the stuff of legend. To have a central outlet for these stories, music recommendations, discussions, and celebration to call home.

Finally, you are here! Think about that for a second. Thank you for taking the time to read, and welcome to the blog.

So, why me? Why now?

I’ve always been fascinated with the backstories of music I enjoy, and I credit my father for a lot of this. From a young age, I remember sharing his appreciation for this sort of music trivia, and began to revel in it. Like him, I wanted to be that guy who could play a song for someone and be able to back it up with a story; something about where the band was when they recorded it, or why the singer’s voice sounded that way, etc. Music is storytelling, and understanding the context is crucial to a full appreciation of all stories.

Our bookshelves growing up were filled with old rock n’ roll biographies, which my dad read voraciously (I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I promise to limit big, pompous words in this blog. Honest.) From “Exile on Main Street” about the Rolling Stones, or “No One Here Gets Out Alive” about Jim Morrison and The Doors, to the straight-to-the-point “Led Zeppelin Uncut”, there was no shortage of backstories to the music that shaped my father’s youth just as they did mine. This was part of my ‘rock n’ roll education’, in his words.

From this classic rock foundation — The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and others — my curriculum expanded. Tastes evolved as I grew up to include harder rock, metal, punk, grunge, alternative and more experimental stuff — Van Halen, Black Sabbath, Ozzy, ELO, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Radiohead, Linkin Park, System of a Down, Metallica, David Bowie, Third Eye Blind, Rise Against, Avenged Sevenfold, and so many others.

Throughout my teen years and time in college, I grew to appreciate all kinds of other music; a brief screamo phase in High School, then pop-punk, discovering hip-hop, finding my love for electronic music through Daft Punk’s ‘Alive 2007’ record, listening to Mozart while studying in school because I thought it might give me an edge, even learning to tolerate country.

(Continued on Side B)