Robert Johnson is known as the “Grandfather of Rock n Roll”. Whether or not this Delta bluesman from the 1930’s invented the chords that rock and roll was built on is debatable. But there is no doubt that the 29 songs he recorded in 1936 and 1937 influenced the writing of the most famous names in rock including: Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. When Keith Richards, guitarist from the Rolling Stones, first heard Johnson play he said “you think you were getting a handle on playing the blues, and then to hear Johnson you thought ‘whoa, there’s a long way to go yet.'” Not only did Johnson’s fingerboard work sound like two guitarists playing at once, but he got power and volume out of an unplugged acoustic that rivals the power of the electric guitar.
Johnson’s musical abilities are intense. His voice is eerie and feminine. And he matches the vast range he gets out of the guitar with the movement of his voice. The myths and legends that surround Robert Johnson are fascinating. The main one is that he sold his soul to the devil at midnight at a Mississippi crossroad in exchange for fame and guitar-playing ability. Johnson’s habits of drinking and womanizing made this story even more believable to country folks in the towns Johnson traveled through. The story of Johnson’s death goes that he was murdered by a jealous husband, who paid a waitress to slip poison into his whiskey.
KEXP Documentaries are produced by Michele Myers, with assistance from John Felthous and Jentery Sayers. And this series features a man who literally wrote the book on pop: University of Washington Music History Professor Larry Starr. Executive Producer is Kevin Cole. If you are a member of our Facebook page, we’ll share our research materials with you as we make the documentaries! You can listen to all our KEXP Documentary series, including: “Punk Evolution”, “American Sabor”, “Pop Goes Electronic”, “Masters of Turntablism” and “The Heart of Soul” here.