At the very first Smithsonian Folklife Festival back in 1967, visitors would have heard performers similar to the artists in this program. Grassroots singers and instrumentalists from the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands, New Orleans French Quarter, New York City, and the Mississippi Delta offered the oldest songs they knew, then described in music and words their creative innovations. They explained how their music coordinated work, praised and lifted the spirit, danced out joy or sorrow, and helped them struggle for change. In every succeeding Festival, the oldest, root traditions were presented alongside emergent forms created by artists fired and inspired by their heritage.
“Roots of Rhythm and Blues: The Robert Johnson Era” embodied a tried and true Festival approach: starting with the roots and presenting the full flower of the traditions, old and young; highlighting links in the creative chain of a people's art. Robert Johnson was a potent and significant link in tradition; he passionately absorbed and then reforged the music of his community and era. His art decisively influenced the music of today's world. This program sought to explore that story of creative change and cultural continuity.
Worth Long and Ralph Rinzler were Curators, and Arlene Reiniger was Program Coordinator. “Roots of Rhythm and Blues: The Robert Johnson Era” was made possible with the support of Music Performance Trust Funds and the Smithsonian Institution's Special Exhibition Fund.