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Roots of Rock

Explore the pioneers of rock & roll, the early influencers whose music inspired some of rock's greatest stars.

Inside the Exhibit

The origins of rock & roll, as told through pioneers in gospel, blues, R&B, country, folk and bluegrass.

The Early Influence inductees contributed more to rock than musical influence—they were also the first to make myths of themselves, to become larger than life.

Robert Johnson is at the heart of more than one rock and roll legend. Born to a family of sharecroppers in Mississippi, Johnson left home to travel the country and play the blues. He was terrible—until he wasn’t.

We’ve heard rock and roll called “the devil’s music” but none takes this so far as the legend of Robert Johnson. Supposedly Johnson wanted so badly to be a blues man that Satan met him at a crossroads one night, offering him mastery of the instrument in exchange for his soul.

Whether he struck a Faustian deal or not is beside the point—deal or no deal, Johnson’s playing was not of this world. The first time Keith Richards heard him play, he thought he was hearing two guitars played at once. Tragically, Johnson also went on to originate the legend of the 27 Club after being poisoned by a fan’s jealous husband. He was later joined by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. Talented, mysterious, tragic—Robert Johnson may be the first ever rock star.

This exhibit is divided into individual cases, each devoted to one of rock and roll’s roots: Gospel, Blues, Country/Folk/Bluegrass and R&B. Each section includes a variety of artifacts and brief bios of the key artists.

RHYTHM AND BLUES

This exhibit case highlights the influence and contributions of early R&B artists in the history of rock.

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BLUES

This section emphasizes the history of the blues, both country and urban, toward the development of rock and the continuation of the blues tradition today in mainstream rock.

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COUNTRY/FOLK/BLUEGRASS

This exhibit case focuses on the origins of rural acoustic music forms that influenced the development of rock music.

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GOSPEL

This exhibit draws attention to the gospel tradition and its influence on early R&B, soul and rock and roll.

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