Whose Version of “The Sky is Crying” is the Best?

In 1959, blues musician Elmore James wrote and released the song “The Sky is Crying.” This piece quickly became a blues standard, celebrated for James’s soulful slide guitar and heartfelt vocals. The song’s melancholic message, conveyed through a deeply engaging tune, captures the essence of the blues and resonated with many listeners.

“The Sky is Crying” did not go unnoticed and was soon covered by several well-known musicians. Artists like Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary B.B. Coleman, and Eric Clapton each performed their own versions, adding their unique interpretations to this classic. For a notable female rendition, check out Susan Tedeschi of the Tedeschi Trucks Band who delivered a powerful performance at Royal Albert Hall, showcasing her intense and emotive vocal style.

In my opinion, the best rendition of “The Sky is Crying” is the version performed and recorded by blues musician and singer Jimmy Johnson (1928-2022). During the 1980s, I enjoyed seeing Johnson play live at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted Street in Chicago. I was with my girlfriend, now wife of 33 years, and the experience left a lasting impression on me.

What sets Johnson’s version apart from the others? It’s difficult to explain precisely why it resonates with me so deeply. Among the thousands of blues songs I’ve listened to, Johnson’s interpretation uniquely conveys the imagery of a sky cracked open and raining. It evokes the mood of numerous film noirs I’ve seen and cold winter nights walking (or running) along deserted, wet streets.

I may also be drawn to this version because this was the first time I heard the song, long before I encountered Vaughan’s and Clapton’s versions. It’s like enjoying a bottle of wine at a restaurant with good company, only to find it tastes different when you purchase the same vintage to enjoy at home. The context in which I first experienced Johnson’s rendition undoubtedly shapes my perception.

The emphasis Johnson places on particular notes, and his interpretation of the lyrics, and the musical arrangement  all contribute to the song’s appeal. The lyrics are simple yet evocative, and his soulful delivery makes the rendition hauntingly beautiful and undeniably catchy.

Would Johnson’s rendition of the song have been as impactful to me if I hadn’t heard his before Vaughan’s or Clapton’s version? Perhaps. However, the first encounter with a piece of music can profoundly influence subsequent experiences.

This leads to several important insights:

The first probably concerns the role of Subjectivity in Art. A person’s first encounter with a piece of music can be profoundly influential, coloring all subsequent experiences. My first experience with Johnson’s version of “The Sky is Crying” set a benchmark for all others.

The second highlights the Role of Context.  Just as a wine might taste different at home than at a restaurant, the setting and circumstances of an individual’s first encounter with a piece of music can play a crucial role in its impact. Hearing Johnson live in an intimate blues club created a unique and unforgettable experience.

The third involves the Essence of Blues Music. This genre specializes in conveying deep emotions and personal stories. Johnson’s melancholic message and soulful delivery exemplify how blues can resonate with listeners on a deeply personal level, reflecting universal human experiences.

And finally, Nostalgia significantly shapes our preferences and perceptions. The first version of a song you hear often holds a special place, influencing how you perceive other renditions. This speaks to the lasting impact of initial impressions and the role of nostalgia in shaping our tastes.

All this to say, is that personal preferences are not always rational but often come from deep-seated memories that are often accompanied by emotional experiences. It’s important to be conscious of our biases, but we must avoid letting this awareness prevent us from making decisions and exploring new pursuits, ideas, and goals. Striking a balance between awareness and action allows us to grow and adapt without becoming paralyzed by self-reflection.