Decades later, Cyndi Lauper is still so unusual. On her new album “Memphis Blues,” she shows how well she can interpret a song. We’ll have more of our chat with her later, where she talks about the album and her tour, which stops at Town Hall on Wednesday and the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center Friday and Saturday. But this explanation of her take on the Robert Johnson classic “Crossroads” needed to stand on its own.
How do you approach a classic like “Crossroads”?
When I sing anything, I try my best to lose myself and find myself in a different place. When I did “Crossroads,” Jonny [Lang] and I spoke and we played some old Robert Johnson stuff. Apparently [Alan] Lomax’s machine ran slow, so [Johnson’s] voice sounds fast. They matched the tones recently and they found this. That’s why Robert Johnson’s voice sounds a little high and a little weird. Online, he sounds unbelievable and you can hear his foot on the ground banging.
We went back to that version. I wanted to not to do the Cream version, which is a great version, and had it not been for Eric Clapton talking about Robert Johnson maybe I would have never known. I grew up listening to him, but I wanted to find out who the real Robert Johnson was. I listened to him and in another part of my mind, I tried to remember those times. I closed my eyes and I felt my feet in the dirt and I sang from there... I just kind of channeled the feeling of that dirt.
When I sang “Crossroads,” I saw a young woman with a white shirt and a black skirt with those heels that they used to wear and a brimmed hat. She’s carrying a suitcase, walking down the road going to catch a train. That’s what I kept in my mind. I tried not to judge myself and whatever came out, came out. That’s just one approach and it’s mine. To me, it’s the most honest.
And the other song choices?
I wanted to capture the spirit of those people. Those were the rockers. Those were the guys on tour. Ma Rainey, she was gangsta. And Big Mama Thornton – I researched a lot about her – she’s straight hip-hop. These were feminists before feminism had a name. These are women in a time when women didn’t make money on their own. Women who made money maybe wrote under a man’s name. They were the first feminists. They were free women. Ma Rainey didn’t invent the blues, but she popularized it in a way that no one else did.