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They Sold Their Souls For Music

Anetode / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Blues guitarist Robert Johnson is said to have gotten his musical talent by selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads close to the famous Dockery Plantation in the Mississippi Delta. The same story was told earlier about another bluesman named Tommy Johnson.

Faustian myths seems to be associated more with musicians than any other profession, and these stories go back a long way. There were rumors of the diabolical powers of violinists like Niccolo Paganini back in the 19th century, and Giuseppe Tartini in the 18th. The same was said of certain medieval troubadours. The thread has certainly continued through the rock generation, from The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" to the Norwegian Black Metal scene.

There is a publicity-stunt aspect to the idea of a deal with the devil. Paganini, whose Satanic reputation was such that his body was not allowed to be buried in a church graveyard, got the highest performance fees of anyone of his generation. My hunch is these myths were often spread by the artists themselves. Robert Johnson seems to be advertising his talent when he sings “Cross Road Blues.”

And it works. What could be more compelling than an artist with paranormal ability?

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.