Saturday, May 14, 2005

crossroad blues

(ED: My name's not Ed. It's Stephen. But thanks to my contributors, I haven't written anything personal in almost a week, and have managed to get by with editorial duties. Here's Our Lady Kate, Queen of All She Surveys, with her first (and hopefully not last,) essay. This one's on the deep dark blues, and possibly the deepest darkest blues song ever.

In the past three or so days, I've opened my checking acount, gotten over a hundred bucks from family members, been told by the state I have to have a summer job, and been offered two thousand bucks to do some shady work. Plus I've got a final Drama project to do. I promise I'll write something halfway meaningful before Thursday. If not, Kate has my permission to hit me in the stomach as hard as she can at Graduation.)


Today we live in a day and age where most songs are written by professional songwriters then presented to artists who are trained how to sing the song to perfection. This song means nothing to them other than the potential for a hit that produces wealth and stardom. Many songwriters are not writing from personal experience, they are merely song-writing machines, designed to produce the hits as fast as they can.

As products of this world, many in our generation do not appreciate the older songs; while they may not have as much action or horribly brutal tragedies or picture-perfect love stories, they are real. The early songs were genuine; they had true feeling behind them, and not just what the artist has been trained to deliver. The person singing the song was the one who wrote the song, they knew firsthand the pain they were singing about.

My "greatest song ever" is one of those early songs. My song involves love, being engulfed by your problems, loneliness, and maybe even a little black magic.

Early on, Robert Johnson was your average guitar player. Actually, he wasn't even that. He would go to local bars to try and "jam" with other guitarists and they would taunt him until he left.

Then one day he disappeared. He stayed gone for a little over a year. No one knew where he went or why he left.

Then, after a year, he reappeared. Told no one where he had gone or why he had left, just came back to the bar where he was taunted, sat down, played, and silenced everyone.

In the year he had been gone, he had become a better guitar player than anyone had ever heard before.

But questions were rampant about where he had gained his ability. How could someone disappear for a year and come back a better player than anyone else, many of whom had been playing longer than Johnson had been alive? Rumors began to circulate.

Johnson claimed that he had sold his soul to the devil in order to be the best living guitar player.

Coming out of his claim came the song "Crossroad Blues."


Crossroad Blues - Robert Johnson

I went down to the crossroad

fell down on my knees

I went down to the crossroad

fell down on my knees

Asked the lord above "Have mercy now

save poor Bob if you please"

Yeeooo, standin' at the crossroad

tried to flag a ride

ooo ooo eee

I tried to flag a ride

Didn't nobody seem to know me babe

everybody pass me by

Standin at the crossroad babe

risin sun goin down

Standin at the crossroad babe

eee eee eee, risin sun goin down

I believe to my soul now,

Poor Bob is sinkin down

You can run, you can run

tell my friend Willie Brown

You can run, you can run

tell my friend Willie Brown

(th)'at I got the crossroad blues this mornin Lord

babe, I'm sinkin down

And I went to the crossroad momma

I looked east and west

I went to the crossroad baby

I looked east and west

Lord, I didn't have no sweet woman

ooh-well babe, in my distress


Robert Johnson only sat down in a recording studio twice in his life. Unlike today's artists who rerecord and layer and edit and alter, every song he recorded he recorded in one take.

When you listen to "Crossroad Blues" you are immediately captivated by the desperateness of the voice and the near perfect guitar playing that accompanies it. That's all there is, a man and his guitar. No techno beats, no backup singers no other guitars players. There is nothing to detract from the incredible guitar playing and the unmistakable voice of Robert Johnson.

The song tells the story of a man whose life has been full of problems. He is black, living in the South during the Depression who can't find a friend, a ride, or an answer to his problems.

He is faced with the greatest decision a mortal could be faced with; do you part with God to gain answers from the Devil, or do you continue to trust in the God you've been raised to believe in? The song is full of conflictions, from the "rising sun going down" or the looking "east and west" this man is clearly confused and the time has come to make a decision.

From the wailing of the guitar to the desperate pleading in his voice to the pauses and silences, Robert Johnson perfectly captures the emotional strain of the situation in a way that no one not in that situation personally could capture. Johnson evokes a feeling of pity on the listener; the listener feels that they too are caught in this horrible situation. They feel confused, alone, as if they have no one to turn to.

Songs such as "Crossroad Blues" evoke feelings in listeners that no Britney Spears or OutKast song could ever dream of evoking.


There is also another rumor that is attached to this song. Supposedly Robert Johnson felt so strongly about artists singing about what they knew that he placed a curse on the song. He did not feel that anyone could capture the emotional aspects of the song like he did and that anyone who tried is forcing emotions they do not understand nor can truly relate to. Anyone who sang the song would be destined to befall some horrible tragedy.

Eric Clapton, who recorded a mix of "Crossroad Blues" and "Travelin Riverside Blues" while with Cream, has been a victim of this curse. Eric Clapton lost his young son who died after falling out of the window of Eric's New York apartment.

Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded the song, planning to put it on a later album. Not long after, their plane crashed, killing several members.

The Allman Brothers Band performed it while hanging out with some friends. Within a year, Duane was dead from a motorcycle accident. (ED: In another year, their bassist Berry Oakley Jr. would die in another accident only a block away from the intersection that killed Duane.)

When you know the history of this song, as well as listen to the incredible one take recording; it's hard to compare any current song to it without acknowledging its roots in it.

Robert Johnson's "Crossroad Blues" is the standard by which many rock artists compare their skills as well as try to imitate. Unless a new artist is willing to sell their soul to the devil, no one will ever compare to Robert Johnson the guitar player or the legend.

That's why his "Crossroad Blues," steeped in legend and lore, is the "greatest song of all time".


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