DiscoverA History of Rock Music in 500 SongsEpisode 166: “Crossroads” by Cream
Episode 166: “Crossroads” by Cream

Episode 166: “Crossroads” by Cream

Update: 2023-07-02


Episode 166 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “Crossroads", Cream, the myth of Robert Johnson, and whether white men can sing the blues. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.

Patreon backers also have a forty-eight-minute bonus episode available, on “Tip-Toe Thru' the Tulips" by Tiny Tim.

Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at and


I talk about an interview with Clapton from 1967, I meant 1968. I mention a Graham Bond live recording from 1953, and of course meant 1963. I say Paul Jones was on vocals in the Powerhouse sessions. Steve Winwood was on vocals, and Jones was on harmonica.


As I say at the end, the main resource you need to get if you enjoyed this episode is Brother Robert by Annye Anderson, Robert Johnson's stepsister.

There are three Mixcloud mixes this time. As there are so many songs by Cream, Robert Johnson, John Mayall, and Graham Bond excerpted, and Mixcloud won't allow more than four songs by the same artist in any mix, I've had to post the songs not in quite the same order in which they appear in the podcast. But the mixes are here -- one, two, three.

This article on Mack McCormick gives a fuller explanation of the problems with his research and behaviour.

The other books I used for the Robert Johnson sections were McCormick's Biography of a Phantom; Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow; Searching for Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick; and Escaping the Delta by Elijah Wald. I can recommend all of these subject to the caveats at the end of the episode.

The information on the history and prehistory of the Delta blues mostly comes from Before Elvis by Larry Birnbaum, with some coming from Charley Patton by John Fahey.

The information on Cream comes mostly from Cream: How Eric Clapton Took the World by Storm by Dave Thompson. I also used Ginger Baker: Hellraiser by Ginger Baker and Ginette Baker, Mr Showbiz by Stephen Dando-Collins, Motherless Child by Paul Scott, and  Alexis Korner: The Biography by Harry Shapiro.

The best collection of Cream's work is the four-CD set Those Were the Days, which contains every track the group ever released while they were together (though only the stereo mixes of the albums, and a couple of tracks are in slightly different edits from the originals).

You can get Johnson's music on many budget compilation records, as it's in the public domain in the EU, but the double CD collection produced by Steve LaVere for Sony in 2011 is, despite the problems that come from it being associated with LaVere, far and away the best option -- the remasters have a clarity that's worlds ahead of even the 1990s CD version it replaced.

And for a good single-CD introduction to the Delta blues musicians and songsters who were Johnson's peers and inspirations, Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson, compiled by Elijah Wald as a companion to his book on Johnson, can't be beaten, and contains many of the tracks excerpted in this episode.


This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?


Before we start, a quick note that this episode contains discussion of racism, drug addiction, and early death. There's also a brief mention of death in childbirth and infant mortality.

It's been a while since we looked at the British blues movement, and at the blues in general, so some of you may find some of what follows familiar, as we're going to look at some things we've talked about previously, but from a different angle.

In 1968, the Bonzo Dog Band, a comedy musical band that have been described as the missing link between the Beatles and the Monty Python team, released a track called "Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?":

[Excerpt: The Bonzo Dog Band, "Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?"]

That track was mocking a discussion that was very prominent in Britain's music magazines around that time. 1968 saw the rise of a *lot* of British bands who started out as blues bands, though many of them went on to different styles of music -- Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, Chicken Shack and others were all becoming popular among the kind of people who read the music magazines, and so the question was being asked -- can white men sing the blues?

Of course, the answer to that question was obvious. After all, white men *invented* the blues.

Before we get any further at all, I have to make clear that I do *not* mean that white people created blues music. But "the blues" as a category, and particularly the idea of it as a music made largely by solo male performers playing guitar... that was created and shaped by the actions of white male record executives.

There is no consensus as to when or how the blues as a genre started -- as we often say in this podcast "there is no first anything", but like every genre it seems to have come from multiple sources. In the case of the blues, there's probably some influence from African music by way of field chants sung by enslaved people, possibly some influence from Arabic music as well, definitely some influence from the Irish and British folk songs that by the late nineteenth century were developing into what we now call country music, a lot from ragtime, and a lot of influence from vaudeville and minstrel songs -- which in turn themselves were all very influenced by all those other things.

Probably the first published composition to show any real influence of the blues is from 1904, a ragtime piano piece by James Chapman and Leroy Smith, "One O' Them Things":

[Excerpt: "One O' Them Things"]

That's not very recognisable as a blues piece yet, but it is more-or-less a twelve-bar blues. But the blues developed, and it developed as a result of a series of commercial waves.

The first of these came in 1914, with the success of W.C. Handy's "Memphis Blues", which when it was recorded by the Victor Military Band for a phonograph cylinder became what is generally considered the first blues record proper:

[Excerpt: The Victor Military Band, "Memphis Blues"]

The famous dancers Vernon and Irene Castle came up with a dance, the foxtrot -- which Vernon Castle later admitted was largely inspired by Black dancers -- to be danced to the "Memphis Blues", and the foxtrot soon overtook the tango, which the Castles had introduced to the US the previous year, to become the most popular dance in America for the best part of three decades. And with that came an explosion in blues in the Handy style, cranked out by every music publisher.

While the blues was a style largely created by Black performers and writers, the segregated nature of the American music industry at the time meant that most vocal performances of these early blues that were captured on record were by white performers, Black vocalists at this time only rarely getting the chance to record.

The first blues record with a Black vocalist is also technically the first British blues record. A group of Black musicians, apparently mostly American but led by a Jamaican pianist, played at Ciro's Club in London, and recorded many tracks in Britain, under a name which I'm not going to say in full -- it started with Ciro's Club, and continued alliteratively with another word starting with C, a slur for Black people. In 1917 they recorded a vocal version of "St. Louis Blues", another W.C. Handy composition:

[Excerpt: Ciro's Club C**n Orchestra, "St. Louis Blues"]

The first American Black blues vocal didn't come until two years later, when Bert Williams, a Black minstrel-show performer who like many Black performers of his era performed in blackface even though he was Black, recorded “I’m Sorry I Ain’t Got It You Could Have It If I Had It Blues,”

[Excerpt: Bert Williams, "I’m Sorry I Ain’t Got It You Could Have It If I Had It Blues,”]

But it wasn't until 1920 that the second, bigger, wave of popularity started for the blues, and this time it started with the first record of a Black *woman* singing the blues -- Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues":

[Excerpt: Mamie Smith, "Crazy Blues"]

You can hear the difference between that and anything we've heard up to that point -- that's the first record that anyone from our perspective, a hundred and three years later, would listen to and say that it bore any resemblance to what we think of as the blues -- so much so








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Episode 166: “Crossroads” by Cream

Episode 166: “Crossroads” by Cream

Andrew Hickey