Roots of Rock & Roll

Roots of Rock: Retrospective

Under the Influence

You’ve heard of Bob Dylan, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but have you heard of Jimmie Rodgers, Mahalia Jackson and Charlie Christian?

Maybe not, but you have them to thank for some of your favorite artists. Bob Dylan called Jimmie Rodgers “one of the guiding lights of the twentieth century.” Little Richard cites Mahalia Jackson as an inspiration. Chuck Berry took his guitar-playing style from Charlie Christian’s single-string technique.

Among the four induction categories are the Early Influences, the trailblazers for all other inductees and the foundation of rock and roll. These are your heroes’ heroes. While the Early Influence inductees’ tenures in music predate the origin of rock, rock music would not be what it is today without them.

From Men to Myths

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.

Beyond the Music

If you think the glammed out, over-the-top peacock performer is an invention of the last fifty years or so, think again. Before there were Elton John’s duck costume and Lady Gaga’s meat dress, there was, and still is, the Nudie suit. Originally a designer for rodeo clowns, Nudie Cohn is known for his elaborately embroidered suits, the weight of which is mostly due to a generous helping of sequins.

However, Cohn wasn’t always so flashy. On display in Roots of Rock is one of his designs for Early Influence inductee Hank Williams. The suit is understated by Nudie’s standards—gray and white stripes, black piping, a red tie—yet the beginning of his flamboyant style is unmistakable. What started as pinstripes and piping would soon become bedazzled cannabis leaves and lapels adorned with naked women. And Elvis Presley’s gold lamé suit of course.

Respect Your Elders

It is fitting that museumgoers pass through the Roots of Rock before any other exhibit. Think of them as the gatekeepers of rock and roll.

They gave us the raw materials of rock—the riffs, the beats, the soaring vocals—which later musicians molded into the genre we know today. But these inductees gave us the spirit of rock and roll fully formed.

Make your pilgrimage to the forebears of rock and thank them for the style, the attitude, the myths and, most importantly, the music.

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