Since its inception, rock and roll has been the subject of rumors, misinformation, and propaganda ranging from the plausible (Stevie Nicks practices Wicca!) to the bizarre (Ozzy Osbourne is the actual Devil). With Halloween almost upon us, what better time to shine a flashlight under your chin and talk about some of the urban legends of rock? This is part one of a two part series about urban legends in the world of rock. And, like all good ghostbusters, we’ll be looking to see if there’s any truth to them at all.
One of the lasting stories about music is selling your soul to the devil to play well. Whether "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" or up to Boston, the pact remains the same: you'll be a famous, talented musician, and the devil will take you after so many years' time. This legend got started before rock and roll was even dreamt of, trickling down from the story of Faust, to virtuoso violinist Niccoló Paganini, and to Robert Johnson, one of the earliest cautionary tales of rock.
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1911, and started picking up instruments at an early age, although according to musicians who knew him, he was hopeless at the guitar. Desperate for greatness, he either summoned the Devil at the crossroads to give his soul in exchange for talent, or conjured him up in a graveyard. Either way, the stories differ about what happened next, but the result is the same.
Whether or not Satan took his guitar and tuned it for him before giving it back, made a more traditional contract with the young man, or Robert simply began to see the payoff from all of his practice, he became an incredibly talented musician. Part of his demonic benefits package included the clause that any woman who heard him play would desire him, no matter how virtuous she was or who she was married to.
While this was a great idea in theory, he should have pushed for some health insurance too. In 1938, he was flirting with a woman at a party when her jealous spouse gave him a poisoned bottle of whiskey. It’s not confirmed whether or not the woman heard him play, but it seems like her husband wasn’t taking any chances. Johnson died several days later at the young age of 27 (making him one of the earlier members of the 27 Club) and was buried in a mass grave for the poor. The tales about Johnson’s bargain grew taller in the decades after his death, and even now, almost eighty years after his demise, it’s still discussed in rock folklore.
Want to know more? Check out Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson by Tom Graves, Steve LaVere.
This concludes Part One! Let us know what you think in the comments, and come back next time for the thrilling conclusion!
Written by Ashton
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