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The Devil Went Down to the Crossroads
It’s common throughout history that people are accused of selling their souls for talent. That’s what people have said for hundreds of years about musicians. People have a hard time understanding that performers are not an assisted by the supernatural and that talent comes with practice. Why do people think that being really good at something is supernatural? People think this because these people have some kind of mysterious background and our mind can’t fill in the missing gaps in their story.
The earliest accusation of selling one’s soul to the Devil was the case of Niccolò Paganini. By all accounts, he was an excellent violinist and composer. He started to play at a very early age. During his career as a violinist, Niccolò could play at a speed of 12 notes per second. Being a good and popular musician at the time, people started to speculate where he gained his talent. Rumors started to swirl that Niccolò had sold his soul to the Devil in order to play as well as he did. It was alleged that during a symphony a viewer had “seen he had seen the Devil helping Paganini with a particularly impassioned performance” (Biography). The accusations were also exacerbated by his condition of Marfan syndrome, a mutation that causes the person to have a tall slender appearance and heightened flexibility. During a time where his condition wasn’t understood, the syndrome made him look very ghastly in appearance. This made Niccolò seem all the more supernatural. Because of his eminence skill and condition, people started to mod him on the street to judge for themselves if he had sold his soul. No one could explain why he was so talented. So people started to believe he struck a deal with the Devil.
A similar story unfolded a century later around the Mississippi Delta. Before Robert was the pioneering musician, he was a lousy guitar player. In between breaks at local blues gigs, he would play the guitar. One band whom Robert practiced with said that when he played the guitar he made a terrible “racket”. A few months later Robert became dissatisfied with his home life and left. For about a year or so he worked on a farm picking cotton for a living. During this time Robert learned the Blues from a musician named Ike Zinneman. Robert and Zinneman would allegedly practice in graveyards. When Robert returned back home a year later, people were amazed at the improvement in his skills as a guitarist. Because of his musical improvement in a relatively short time, people started to speculate that Robert had gained his prowess through unnatural means. After Robert heard about his alleged pack with the Devil Robert went with it. He is said to have “often claimed that he learned to play guitar from the Devil himself, and many of his recordings evince a haunting, otherworldly inspiration”(Rolling Stone). Robert started to embrace this identity, he wrote and recorded songs like “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Crossroads”. People started to claim that these songs where the story of how he came into contact with the Devil because of his skill and because of the topics he sang about. Robert also said it himself that he did sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for Blues skills.
As the times kept changing so did the theory about how popular musicians were dealing with the Devil. During the early sixties, the Beatles became the target of accusation about striking a deal with the Devil. The only difference was that people said the Beatles were trying to trick their audience into listening and turning people over to the sinful lifestyle. Listeners started to find drug references in their music. Some listeners started to believe that these references were trying to mislead people into. Many of their songs did have either accidental or purposeful drug references in them like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. People said that the song was about an LSD trip because the song spelled out LSD in the title and because of its surreal tone. John Lennon even said on the topic that “I had no idea it spelled LSD. This is the truth: my son came home with a drawing and showed me this strange-looking woman flying around.” Listeners felt that the Beatles responding to this was evidence enough and it must’ve been true, the drug references must've been something bigger. Accusations started to come forward that “the Satanists control the major rock groups through drugs, sex, threats of violence, and even murder” (Phau). Because of the supposed drug references, the Beatles must’ve sold their soul to the Devil in order to get fame and recognition. They also wanted their fans to follow the same path to damnation as the Beatles.
When people throughout time repeat an action over and over, in the same way, the thought must not be rational but instead, it must be a thing a person believes subconsciously. In all the circumstances shown, some listeners don’t understand how the musician could be that good. When there’s a gap in the mind, our conscious will try to fill that gap with anything that it feels it can understand. People cling to anything, even if it does make sense like when “Cristine Legare and André Souza of the University of Texas at Austin were able to create their own rituals to examine why people think they work. They are now finding that rituals help people gain a sense of control over their environment”(Kraus). People want to understand what they don’t but any rationale possible. It hurts to think that we’re out of control or we don’t understand something. Aristotle once said, “Nature abhors a vacuum”. In this case, people’s minds are nature and the vacuum of not knowing hurts. Things that are left empty have to be filled. Our minds are always trying to fill in the gaps of what people weren’t there for.
When our minds don’t understand something they often come to irrational conclusions in order to feel in control. This is why many musicians are accused of working with the Devil in order to gain their musical skills.
“Fundamental Concepts from Psychology of the Supernatural.” Stitcher.
“Niccolò Paganini.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 8 Jan. 2016.
“Robert Johnson Biography.” Rolling Stone.
“Robert Johnson Sold His Soul to the Devil in Rosedale, Mississippi.” Rolf Potts, 2 Nov. 2016.
Routledge, Clay. “Why Do People Believe in Supernatural Evil Forces?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 31 Oct. 2015.
“Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.
“SPSP 2012: Watchdogs, Witch-Hunts, and What to Do about False-Positive Findings.” Psych Your Mind.