Fretlight Guitar / The Players' Blog

Selling Your Soul for Rock ‘N’ Roll

by Fretlight
on July 12, 2013 on Blues, From the Fretlight Team, Learn To Play Guitar

(The Legend of Robert Johnson)

If you’ve read Faust, you know the benefits of trading your soul to acquire wondrous powers. One might also consider the consequences of such a pact with the devil. One American folk legend has a similar tale. Robert Johnson is recognized as a master of the blues, specifically, the Mississippi Delta style of blues guitar.  As the story goes, Johnson was ‘instructed’ to take his guitar to a crossroad at midnight. For the price of eternal damnation, Johnson was bestowed with the gift of the blues which he made famous. Johnson should have read the caveat emptor in his bargaining agreement, because commercial success was not achieved until decades after his death at 27 years old. During his short lifetime, Johnson only played small venues from Chicago to Memphis, all the way down to his home state of Mississippi and he was not commonly known. It is conceivable that Mephistopheles held up his end of the deal with a claim to the recording rights of Robert Johnson’s music. You’ve gotta read the fine print, especially when dealing with the Devil. Johnson is attributed with influencing guitar greats like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeremy Spencer and Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, and the ultimate guitarist, Jimi Hendrix.

robert johnson blues

Johnson only had his talent for 7 years before his unexplained death in 1938. He was only 27 and this helps support the legend that he sold his soul for unearthly musical abilities. The age of 27 is significant in the realm of music history because of the number of deaths that many great musicians share at that specific age. Brian Jones, Alan Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain are all members of what is known as the 27 Club. Robert Johnson was one of the oldest members of the club; Amy Winehouse is one of the newest additions to the list. Several odd theories surround the 27 Club, from these artists having similar arrangements with the Devil for instrumental mastery, to Cobain timing his death to join the ranks among other immortalized. One thing is for certain, the club is chock full of talent taken too early.

Robert Johnson’s story can be found all over pop culture today. The TV series Supernatural episode Crossroads Blues opens with a scene where Johnson is depicted mumbling about the hell hounds chasing him because it was time for the devil to collect. In the Cohen Brothers film adaptation of Homer’s  The Odyssey, O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?, the trio of protagonists known as The Soggy Bottom Boys record a smash tune with the help of a bedeviled young man named Tommy Johnson, who was also an early influential jazz musician (Tommy was also alleged to have a diabolical pact in exchange for musical talent). In one episode of the animated series Futurama, Fry trades hands with Robot Devil in order to play the holophonor so he can win the affections of Leela. The Charlie Daniels Band classic Devil Went Down To Georgia is a variant of the story about the Devil’s failed attempt to steal a young man’s soul via a fiddle playing contest with the enticement of a golden violin prize. The 1986 film Crossroads with Ralph Macchio and Joe Seneca, is based on the folk tale as well. All of these reference the legend of the man who sold his soul in exchange for learning to play the guitar.  Many people even surmise that American folk music icon Bob Dylan is a recipient of musical gifts from the underworld when he nervously revealed that he answered to the “Chief Commander of this world and the world we can’t see” in this interview with 60 Minutes host Ed Bradley. There are probably several more examples of the Faustian bargain.

Robert Johnson

 Picture Source: Philip Cheaney

Luckily, you don’t need a midnight rendezvous with the Devil at a crossroads to learn to play guitar like Robert Johnson did… we wouldn’t encourage you to anyhow. We invented Fretlight, so you can keep your soul and put it into your music instead. :)