Manila Folders

February 18, 2018

The Grandfather of Rock & Roll

As a teenager, Robert Johnson found himself infatuated by the music of bluesman Eddie ‘Son’ House whom he followed to his shows. At the time, it is said that Johnson could play the harmonica but had yet to have any grasp on playing guitar. When House and Willie Brown had a rest period at their shows, they’d put up their guitars and head inside, during which Johnson would pick up the guitar and give it a go.

“While we’re out, Robert, he’d get the guitar and go bamming with it, you know? Just keeping noise, and the people didn’t like that. They’d come out and they’d tell us, ‘Why don’t you or Willie or one goin there and stop that boy? He’s driving everybody nuts’ … I’d say, ‘Just leave the guitars alone… (but) we couldn’t break him from it, and his father would get at him, dogged him so much that he run away.” — Son House

Over the next few years, Johnson disappeared—or so it seemed that way from the perspective of the Mississippi Delta—from which the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil was born. When Johnson returned to the Delta, guitar in hand, it was said that his musical abilities transcended that which was humanly possible to achieve in that short amount of time. The only explanation for how Johnson got so good was that in the time he had disappeared, he met the Devil at the crossroads and sold his soul in exchange for his new-found talent.

Robert’s grandson Steven Johnson suggests that, in the years that Robert left the Delta, he had went south and returned home to Hazlehurst, Mississippi where he was then mentored by local bluesman Ike Zimmerman. There was a cemetery across the street from Zimmerman’s house where it is said that the two would go to at night to practice. While this account on Johnson’s life is far more likely, the legend of selling his soul to the Devil is still associated with him. Funny enough, years before Johnson’s break into the music scene, Tommy Johnson who has no relation to Robert and was also another Delta Blues musician, had personally claimed to have sold his soul to the Devil. Perhaps it wasn’t necessarily Robert’s surge in musical talent that brought forth his deal at the crossroads, but rather it was the similarity in location, name, and time that he shared with Tommy? Regardless, these stories are only fractionally as interesting as the work these artists left behind.

It’s no secret that Rock & Roll was birthed from the Blues, but if Chuck Berry is deemed the father of Rock & Roll, I’ll argue that Robert Johnson is the grandfather of Rock & Roll.

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