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Crossroads Music

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 - 06:12 PM

Record needle Record needle (thephotographymuse/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

As we investigated the myths surrounding the bluesman Robert Johnson for our short Crossroads, we found ourselves swimming in amazing music -- not just blues -- and we wanted to share it.

So here are all the songs featured in the Crossroads podcast, in all their full-length glory. When you line them up, you've got something of a history of the roots of rock n' roll. Oh, and we should point out, this isn't quite everything. A few rare, old tunes weren't available on Spotify, but you can buy 'em at iTunes or Amazon, if you like (links at the bottom of the page).


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Comments [28]

Thank you for re-running this show, which this time, today, I heard on WAMU.

In terms of the idea that Rock, especially Clapton and the Stones and others, picked up that music and musical style from Robert Johnson:

many believe Robert Johnson's music did not translate directly to recent Rock stars, but through Elmore James. James recorded Johnson in the 1950s and a bit of the 1960s. "Crossroads" around 1954. Of course James used electric instruments and amplifiers, and the story goes that what the British rock stars first heard of Johnson were the Elmore James records. Those records were always in print in Britain, and if you listen to James and you listen to the Brit rock stars, you can hear James. On the other hand, James is so respectful of Johnson in how infused Johnson's technique and presentation is in James, in no way does this version of the Exodus of Johnson's music demean Robert Johnson

Mar. 22 2015 01:52 PM
TJ Colatrella

There was an article a year or so ago, that discussed the fact that many old 78's and direct to Disc recordings were sped up, especially those of Robert Johnson's. This is not to take away from his gifts or genius or technical ability, but it does make them a bit more approachable for the normal human to reproduce.

It's not unlike the issue of Beethoven's 5th..and the metronome time issue. I have the Chicago Symphony version in which the 5th played at that more robust tempo..

This selling ones soul to the devil myth is of course bunk. That's not the nature of The Universe or Creation as was also discussed today regarding the Higgs Field and Higgs Boson..

One of the best experts on Robert Johnson is my old pal and guitar partner Roots Music Phd. Professor Bruce Conforth, who also plays reproduces Robert Johnson's playing and style closer than anyone I've ever heard including Eric Clapton who's music I love. Prof. Conforth Teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor..

Dec. 02 2013 01:56 PM
Ken Gaugler from Cupertino, Ca

When are you coming to De Anza College in Cupertino Calif?
Hope it will be very soon!
Thanks Guys

Dec. 01 2013 03:40 AM

This is one groovy playlist! You all might enjoy my new article for HuffPo - enjoy!

Robert Johnson and the Myth of the Illiterate Bluesman

Jun. 28 2012 05:12 PM
Max from Fuquay-Varina

After two years of devout listening, this episode was, by far, my favorite Radiolab episode-- so much so, I, a recent college grad (5 days to be exact), with a weak monetary "backbone" was compelled to donate to Radiolab. Thank you for the consistent enlightenment, and I hope that one day you will come near Fuquay-Varina!

May. 17 2012 10:58 PM
Thomas Dexter from NYC

Great story - I recently came across an interesting theory about the recordings themselves which further questions what we know about the man and might be of interest to radio lab listeners. The recordings (much like many classics of early cinema which were transfered at the wrong frame-rate) were somehow pressed to vinyl at the wrong speed. The playback is a little too fast. The import is that the recordings themselves lend to the supernatural myth of the man because the sound is unnatural: the vibrato in his voice is too fast, his guitar playing has a shrill violent quality that you don't here in his contemporaries.. Also interesting in the sense that the musicians like Eric Clapton essentially took the blueprints for these songs and played them faster still, based on this supposed misinterpretation / mishearing of Robert Johnson. I've have listened to the recordings at the "correct speed" and it is alarming what a difference a few RPMs make...

May. 05 2012 04:13 PM
Liliana from Los Angeles

What a fantastic short this was! My friend was hesitant about listening to this since he thought he had heard the Robert Johnson story before but I had to tell him, "trust me, you haven't heard the whole thing." I was happy to hear from him that I was right.

Love you guys and will be seeing you next Tuesday in LA!

May. 01 2012 12:36 AM
Gaston from Costa Rica

The episode was amazing.

Just one thing: Spotify is not available in many countries. Maybe future playlists can be created using, which has no country limitations.


Apr. 30 2012 02:12 PM
Andrew from Los Angeles

Great show, but the sequence in Fantasia that uses Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is not the dancing mushrooms (that's Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker) but the demise of the dinosaurs.

Apr. 29 2012 02:45 PM
Bill N. in VT from Vermont

What a perfectly crafted episode. I'm a fan of Robert Johnson, I read a bunch of books but you told me things I didn't know. The ending was absolutely perfect; you started with a mystery, did fact finding and ended up with the same mystery. I can see the parallel to the sciency things you usually cover. Perfect.

Bill N in Vermont

Apr. 27 2012 09:21 AM

You guys just keep making it harder to pick a favorite episode. Thanks for helping me to stay curious!

Apr. 27 2012 09:00 AM
Tom Hutcherson from Long Beach, CA

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this episode (but then again why wouldn't I, I love your show). When you guys started off, I thought (being a huge Robert Johnson fan since I was a 6 year old watching that Ralph Macchio movie, "Crossroads,)" that you werent going to tell me anything new that I hadn't already read about later on life. You did a good job. I actually laughed at a few parts out of surprise in some of the things you found. I do wish it could've been longer. There does seem to be a lot left out. This seemed to be a more narrowly-focused episode than some of your others that enjoy their multiple tangents. In any case, thanks. Keep up the good work.

Apr. 26 2012 10:47 AM

Just listened to the podcast. Great show, but it seemed as though the implication was that the myth of the crossroads, in general, began with Robert Johnson (or Tommy Johnson), when, in reality, it stretches way further back to many different cultures.

My favorite depiction of the crossroads and meeting with the Devil is from F.W. Murnau's 1926 movie "Faust."

Apr. 26 2012 03:07 AM
bigmamou from port townsend, wa

I don't have a lot of quibble with your podcast, the tunes are fine and the players are important BUT having said that I would add two comments.......why include John Lee's version of "Guitar Blues" when the original (and seminal) version of the tune is still available? It was first recorded by Sylvester Weaver in 1923 (he recorded it 2 weeks after he recorded the first 2 blues tunes in musical history) and this remains the definitive version in both rock n' roll, country music and blues genres. My second could you NOT INCLUDE the bluesman who influenced all of those on your list - Charlie Patton??? You hear him in Hooker, Johnson, the Kings and every blues singer and guitarist who came after him! He, not Robert Johnson, is the single most important bluesman in all of blues history, whether for writing, singing, playing or for establishing the classic bluesman lifestyle!!

Apr. 25 2012 01:53 PM
Johnattan Garcia from Bogotá, Colombia

Hello guys!! Greetings from COLOMBIA!! :D (The country, not the state) ...Great show! Keep Rockin'!!

Apr. 25 2012 12:03 AM

I recently read a book called Guitar Man where he also spoke about the crossroads, I had never heard of it before and now twice in a few months. Good stuff!

Apr. 24 2012 12:14 AM

This was brilliant, thank you!

Apr. 23 2012 07:31 PM
Carla Grimaldi

Great show!! I'm originally from Peru so this post educate me a lot about blues and American music in general. Thank you!!!

Apr. 23 2012 11:20 AM
danny from San Francisco

sometimes myths need to stay untouched. You've taken some some wondeful part of music folklore and very easily destroyed its value. I don't think RoJo would appreciate it.

Apr. 20 2012 04:32 PM

Great show. My family is from Sumner/Clarksdale/Memphis. Utterly fascinating piece of work. I have a new favorite episode, yet again.

Apr. 20 2012 11:52 AM
Kath from Earth

I'm surprised the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" didn't come up. In the movie they pick up a guitarist, Tommy Johnson, at a crossroads early one morning.

Apr. 20 2012 10:58 AM

Awesome little short. I think the haunting quality of Johnson's music endures because of the nature of the recordings -- no amount of digital remastering can erase the ephemeral quality of his songs. Also, as if to prove the point about the confusion around bluesmen with names as common as 'Johnson', I would like to point out that it is the music of Blind Willie Johnson (a song called "Dark Was the Night") that appears on the Voyager 'Golden Record', not Robert Johnson.

Apr. 20 2012 08:58 AM
Jimmyfrank from Eugene,or

Loved the robert johnson podcast been listening to him for a long time but something you may not have considered; what if by selling his soul to the devil he gained immortality and actually is still alive somewhere? Just a thought keep up the great work guys

Apr. 20 2012 05:50 AM

Is it possible to save this playlist in spotify?

Apr. 19 2012 03:52 PM
Jason from Europe

Hey Jad,

I love your work, but please split this stuff off and publish it for a different podcast. This musical and history stuff is great, but fits better in "This American Life" or "the memory palace".

Please let radiolab stick to bleeding-edge science and stuff that makes me look at the universe in a whole new way....

Apr. 19 2012 03:45 PM
Michael Bester

And here's a version of the playlist for Rdio users:

Apr. 19 2012 02:11 PM

one of my favorite random tidbits on Robert Johnson, is that one of his songs is on the giant gold plated phonographic records attached to the voyager space crafts. sort of shows his cultural import, this man who is a fore father of modern music, that no one knows anything about, his music floating through space representing our lonely little planet with his tragic songs.

he's also a poster child for the public domain, this national treasures works should be a part of it, if not for those stupid copyright extensions congress keeps handing out.

as always great show guys!

Apr. 19 2012 01:55 PM

here's a link to this playlist on grooveshark (for the other americans and non americans)

Apr. 18 2012 11:17 PM

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