Cross Road Blues/Crossroads: Robert Johnson and Cream

Hello there! In this week’s post we will consider the song Crossroads, contrasting the original version by Robert Johnson to the cover by Cream. This is not only one of the greatest blues tunes of all time, it is arguably the iconic blues song, dealing with the myth regarding the source of a bluesman’s genius. In addition it features an artist whose personal life was nearly unknown and who had a minimal influence on the music of his day, and yet has had an enormous impact on modern blues and rock music. Finally, the cover Crossroads is arguably the best-known song from the first blues supergroup, the precursor of later bands such as Led Zeppelin, Bad Company  and Rush.

Robert Johnson and Cross Road Blues:

The details of Robert Johnson’s life are shrouded in the mists of time.  He is believed to have been born in Hazelhurst, MS in 1911.  He performed as an itinerant musician on the bar circuit in the Mississippi Delta, but during his career also traveled further afield to Chicago, New York and Canada.  Johnson died in 1938 at age 27.  He is rumored to have been poisoned, perhaps by a jealous husband. Of the little that we definitely know about Johnson, he apparently had a distinct fondness for both liquor and women.

Johnson would be completely unknown today were it not for the products of two recording sessions.  The first took place at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio in 1936.  There, Johnson recorded 16 different songs with multiple takes of several.  These include Cross Road Blues, Kind-Hearted Woman Blues and Sweet Home Chicago.  The second session took place in Dallas in 1937.  On this occasion Johnson recorded 13 songs plus some multiple takes, including Hellhound on My Trail and Love in Vain.

"Photo-booth self-portrait” of Johnson, believed to have been taken in the early 1930s. From the Granger Collection, New York..

“Photo-booth self-portrait” of Johnson, believed to have been taken in the early 1930s. From the Granger Collection, New York..

Here are two of the only known photos of Robert Johnson and his guitar.  By the way, take a look at Johnson’s incredibly long fingers.  During his lifetime Johnson was a rather minor figure, known primarily to a small group of musicians who frequented the Mississippi Delta juke-joint scene. However, in 1961 on the urging of the great popular music entrepreneur John Hammond, Jr., Columbia Records issued a compilation of his work titled King of the Delta Blues Singers. At this time his work caught the attention of blues musicians around the world.

Johnson’s records had a profound impact in Chicago, where blues artists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf had emigrated from the South. Johnson’s work was also noted by musicians like Eric Clapton and Brian Jones, who were leaders in a British blues revival movement. Jones introduced his Rolling Stones band mates to Johnson’s music and over the years they subsequently recorded a few of his songs. Robert Plant was also influenced by Robert Johnson and his blues-rock group Led Zeppelin later issued a cover of Traveling Riverside Blues.

Robert Johnson Robert Johnson Studio Portrait Hooks Bros., Memphis, circa 1935 ©1989 Delta Haze Corporation

Robert Johnson Robert Johnson Studio Portrait Hooks Bros., Memphis, circa 1935 ©1989 Delta Haze Corporation

The supposed theme of Cross Road Blues represents a recurring legend.  A musician travels to a crossroads where he meets a mysterious stranger; in an alternate version of the myth, the venue becomes a graveyard.  In return for his soul (if you hadn’t guessed, the stranger is the Devil), the musician is granted extraordinary musical gifts. 

This legend dovetails perfectly with the notion that blues represents the “Devil’s music.”  It is even more compelling when one realizes that many Southern blues artists initially developed their musical talent through participation in gospel choirs – thus, in turning to the blues they were quite literally forsaking “God’s music” for that of the Devil.

This legend has been applied directly to Johnson.  The Southern blues pioneer Son House recalled seeing Johnson perform early in his career; he remembered Johnson as a tolerable singer but a truly mediocre guitarist.  After traveling around the Mississippi Delta, Johnson subsequently emerged as an exceptional guitarist who combined technical excellence with innovative technique.  This helped fuel the rumor that perhaps Johnson’s dramatic improvement owed more to diabolical intervention than to diligent practice and exposure to local musicians.

Here is the recording of Robert Johnson singing Cross Road Blues.

Cross Road Blues supposedly tells the story of a traveling musician who meets the Devil at an intersection, gaining musical talent but losing his soul in the process.  But does it?  Here are some of the song’s lyrics:

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above “Have mercy, save poor Bob, if you please”
Standin’ at the crossroad I tried to flag a ride
Standin’ at the crossroad I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me everybody pass me by
The sun goin’ down, boy, dark gon’ catch me here

It is conceivable that the song refers to an encounter with the Devil; however it is also possible that the singer is generally unhappy about his life, has been abandoned by his woman, or perhaps was just depressed at his inability to hitch a ride.

In this song Johnson’s high-pitched vocals are paired with some extraordinary guitar work.  In particular, Johnson’s ability to simultaneously play a ‘walking blues’ line on the low strings, rhythm notes on the middle, and a lead line on the treble strings was unique at the time. In fact, when Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards first heard Johnson he inquired about the identity of ‘the accompanying guitarist,’ not realizing that Johnson was playing all of the parts.

In 1990 Columbia Records issued a 2-CD box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings.  As advertised, this contained all 29 of Johnson’s recordings.  By this time Johnson’s legacy was sufficiently well established that the set sold a million copies.

Cream and Crossroads:

In June 1966 Oxford University’s Merton College held a “Commemoration Ball.”  At such an event the college installed a series of large tents, one in each quadrangle of the college. Several of the tents featured bands that played throughout the evening.  The centerpiece of the event was a “headliner” group, supplemented with several minor musical acts. Those bands that weren’t headliners were scandalously under-paid, and were basically performing merely for the exposure.

During the mid-60s the headliners were generally British Invasion rock and blues groups. Merton’s headliner was the Spencer Davis Group featuring vocalist Steve Winwood, who had just turned 18 but was already in his fourth year with the band (!)  A “bidding war” for the group’s services erupted between two Oxford colleges. My college Merton emerged the winner, while the bitterly disappointed losers had to console themselves with The Who.

Graham Bond ORGANisation: back Ginger Baker (drums), Dick Heckstall-Smith (saxophone) and Jack Bruce (bass): front Graham Bond (organ, vocals).

Graham Bond ORGANisation: back Ginger Baker (drums), Dick Heckstall-Smith (saxophone) and Jack Bruce (bass): front Graham Bond (organ, vocals).

At one point during the evening I came across a progressive blues-jazz quartet, the Graham Bond ORGANisation (GBO). They sounded terrific – organ, bass, saxophone and drums. Their music was powerful and very sophisticated. It featured Bond on organ and vocals, but also included an exceptional sax player and an inspired drummer.

I thought I was pretty plugged into the British rock and blues scene, so I remarked to the fellow next to me on the fickle nature of the music business – you could be as talented as this bunch but still be virtually unknown. It turned out this fellow was friends with the band. “You better enjoy this group now,” he replied “because it’s their last performance. The drummer is breaking away to form his own group.” After a pregnant pause, he added “EVERY drummer is about to break away to form his own group.”

Well, perhaps not every drummer was as successful as this one – my recollection was that the “breakaway” GBO drummer and bassist were Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Two weeks later they teamed up with Eric Clapton to form the super-group Cream. I have been telling friends for the past 50 years that I saw Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker immediately before they formed one of rock’s legendary groups. Alas, in preparing this post I discovered my recollection was not entirely true. Jack Bruce had been thrown out of GBO a few months earlier because – get this – he and Ginger Baker hated each other! So apparently it was quite a shock to Baker when Eric Clapton agreed to join forces only if Bruce was included as the third member of their power trio.

Cream: from left, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton.

Cream: from left, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton.

The group claims they chose the name Cream because they considered each member the best (`cream of the crop’) on their respective instrument. Silly me, I always assumed the name was a sly sexual reference. The group combined hard-rock covers of blues standards with original compositions by Baker and Bruce. The brilliant musicians in Cream became a sensation, initially in Britain and quickly thereafter around the world.

Cream lasted only about two and a half years from July 1966 until late 1968. It isn’t easy to determine the end date as a final album was released in 1969 after the group had actually disbanded, and there is some debate as to whether the group still “existed” by the end of their protracted farewell tours.

In retrospect, it is easy to catalog the issues that drove the group apart. First, the animosity between Baker and Bruce continued, and Clapton found himself repeatedly trying to negotiate between his feuding band mates. Second, all three Cream members were dealing with extremely heavy drug usage while simultaneously coping with their burgeoning fame and adulation by fans.

One final issue is that Cream’s ascendance coincided with a revolution in sound technology. Early on, rock bands used really tiny amplifiers; check out video of the Beatles’ 1965 Shea Stadium concert – it almost seems like they brought their lunch boxes onstage with them! These were subsequently replaced by gigantic Marshall stacks. This provided a tremendous increase in both the audio fidelity and the decibel power. It was a major technical advance for rock ‘n roll; however, it needed to be accompanied by sophisticated techniques to balance the various instruments and to protect the hearing of the participants.

In accounts of the history of Cream, it appears that Jack Bruce’s reaction to the new sound technology was to turn the volume up to ‘11.’ For Ginger Baker this was a disaster on several levels. First, his jazz-inspired drumming was relatively subtle and he felt that his drum licks were being drowned out onstage. Second, Baker’s hearing was dramatically impaired during his years with Cream. Of course, didn’t we all suffer hearing loss from rock concerts – I said, DIDN’T WE ALL SUFFER HEARING LOSS FROM ROCK CONCERTS?

OK, so much for the negative details about Cream. The bad vibes didn’t matter to the growing legion of fans of the trio. Initially the band tried to strike a balance between shorter songs intended for the singles charts, and longer more free-form sets that featured Clapton’s epic blues-based solos, Bruce’s energetic bass, and Baker’s inventive drum licks. However, the group became legendary for their live sets; and so despite the lack of top-10 singles, Cream albums sold so well that the group concentrated on longer, more convoluted improvisational jams. Early Cream albums contained relatively short songs, averaging about five minutes. Later live performances tended to feature epic compositions — it was not unusual for songs to last 20 to 30 minutes.

At their best, Cream could deliver incredible improvisation: creative twists and turns; imaginative collaborations with the melodic lead shuttling between guitar, bass and drums; and jazz-influenced free-form sets that provided startling new takes on classic blues tropes. However, Clapton became convinced that the group began to ‘skate’ on their talent and that they could produce repetitive, seemingly interminable drug-induced noise. But the trio were so talented that even when far below their peak they could still delight and amaze.

Eric Clapton rode his soaring personal popularity to new heights with Cream. In earlier short stints with The Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Clapton’s mastery of both the blues rock idioms and his stunning combination of technical ability and creativity inspired the `Eric is God’ graffiti that appeared on overpasses all over London. He was proficient in everything from fingering technique to slide guitar to the newly popular wah-wah pedal.

The Cream cover of Robert Johnson’s song, renamed Crossroads, was featured on the group’s 1968 double album Wheels of Fire. That album’s first disc consists of songs recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York between late 1967 and early 1968, while the second disc was recorded in March 1968 during live concerts at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom and The Fillmore. Two of the live cuts (Spoonful and Toad) represent long 16-minute jams typical of the group’s later concert work, while Crossroads checks in at a relatively svelte 4:13.

Crossroads is rightly celebrated as a superb rock transformation of a blues standard. Eric Clapton’s guitar work represents a masterful marriage of blues chords with power guitar licks. The Wikipedia entry for Crossroads gives a concise description of Cream’s arrangement of the song.

Clapton simplifies Johnson’s guitar line and sets it to a straight eighth-note or rock rhythm. He and Bruce on bass continuously emphasize the riff throughout the song to give it a strong and regular metric drive combined with Baker’s drumming. Johnson’s irregular measures are also standardized to typical twelve-bar sections in which the I–IV–V blues progression is clearly stated.

Here is a live clip of Cream performing Crossroads. The YouTube video identifies it as being from 1968; however Clapton’s clean-shaven appearance makes me wonder if it was not filmed earlier. As with many live clips from the 60s, neither the video nor audio quality is great. It appears to have been taken with a single black-and-white video camera. I wish that the recording had focused more on Clapton’s guitar work than on his face. However, it does provide an intimate vignette of Cream in action; three virtuoso musicians providing a power-rock take on the Robert Johnson blues classic.

And here is the audio from the 1968 Winterland concert. It is fascinating to note the many differences in Clapton’s guitar solos from the previous video.

The group had initially decided that Bruce would be the lead vocalist, so Crossroads is one of the few Cream songs featuring Eric Clapton on lead vocals. During the vocals, the guitar and bass simply drive forward the beat at a much faster tempo than the Robert Johnson original, while Clapton’s soaring solos show off his technical capabilities.

Further Remarks on Cream and Clapton:

Cream’s popularity marked Eric Clapton’s ascendance to ‘rock god’ status. Although Cream had an achingly short lifespan, this brief period was also symptomatic of Clapton’s tendency to switch groups at regular intervals. The British rock scene at this period was incredibly fluid. Musicians were no longer locked into exclusive contracts with a single producer and record company. Groups would form, break up and re-form in slightly different permutations. A superstar like Clapton could act essentially as a free agent, moving relatively easily from one group to another or sitting in with bands as a guest artist.

After Cream imploded in 1968, the group members went their separate ways while also attempting to kick their drug addictions. Baker and Bruce each continued to work with various groups. Feeling burned-out by the adulation and pressure he experienced with Cream, Eric Clapton kept moving on to different bands. His next project was the quartet Blind Faith, which was arguably less a band than a brief partnership between good friends Clapton and Steve Winwood. This was followed by a period where Clapton sat in and toured with the group Delaney and Bonnie. Some of the musicians from that band subsequently created Derek and the Dominos, which featured a tragically brief but incredibly fertile collaboration between Eric and the Allman Brothers lead guitarist Duane Allman.

In 1993 Cream members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they played together for the first time in 25 years. This immediately sparked interest in a Cream reunion. The group eventually reunited briefly in 2005, when they played four shows at Royal Albert Hall followed by another three shows at Madison Square Garden. To no one’s surprise, tickets for the concerts sold out almost instantly. Despite rumors that other reunion concerts might follow, the group never again played together, and Jack Bruce died from liver disease in October 2014.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Robert Johnson
Wikipedia, Cream
Wikipedia, Crossroads
Searching for Robert Johnson, Frank DiGiacomo, Vanity Fair, Nov. 2008

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats. He is also interested in tennis and ornithology.
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6 Responses to Cross Road Blues/Crossroads: Robert Johnson and Cream

  1. Betty Londergan says:

    Tim, did not know that you had seen Ginger Baker & (allegedly) Jack Bruce at Oxford — that is so cool!! Great story and GREAT clip of Cream — I remember how much i loved their first album and played it incessantly. (And isn’t it funny that Ginger Baker went on to become a really proficient and passionate polo player?? from heroin to horses — who knew??) Thanks for sharing!!

    Like

    • Betty — yes, had some great experiences with British music scene — but missed Eric Clapton several times (saw Yardbirds, John Mayall after he left, Baker & (I thought) Bruce just before Clapton joined them, never saw Cream nor Blind Faith. Oh well, it was pretty great anyway.

      On Mon, Apr 20, 2015 at 10:13 AM, Tim's Cover Story wrote:

      >

      Like

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