The Faustian myth, wherein one sells their soul for fame or fortune, is an incredibly popular motif throughout world folklore and literature. While the story draws on a number of earlier figures and myths, Faust by name originated in Germany in the sixteenth century. In the legend, he was a scholar who, displeased with his life and research, made a deal with the devil and exchanged his soul for insurmountable knowledge. Various retellings of the story give Faust different fates; in the earlier versions, he is inevitably damned to hell for his actions.
Of all the deal-with-the-devil stories, Faust burns the brightest. This can likely be attributed to Christopher Marlowe, whose play Doctor Faustus, published posthumously at the beginning of the early seventeenth century, brought the story to an English audience. Two centuries after this, Goethe published his play Faust, now regarded as a pinnacle of German literature. And these are only two of countless works of literature, art, and music that are derived from the original legend.
Not only has Faust inspired numerous musical works, including symphonic and operatic music by major classical composers like Gounod, Stravinsky, and Wagner, the legend has also inspired stories about the musicians’ personal lives and practices. Niccolò Paganini, the celebrated Italian violin virtuoso, was rumoured to have sold his soul in exchange for his remarkable skill. These occult associations were strong enough that after his death he was initially denied a Catholic burial by the church.
But perhaps out of all music, the blues is arguably most closely associated with the Faustian myth. Arising amongst African-American communities and gaining popularity in the Deep South at the end of the nineteenth century, blues music flourished for decades and set the precedent for the birth of rock and roll in the fifties. Blues songs draw from many influences, including West African and American folk traditions and work songs, often from plantations, which recount racial, romantic, and economic hardships. Ironically, considering its associations with the devil, Christian spirituals were also important to the development of the blues. While it is an overgeneralization to say that all blues music is melancholy, it is of course sad by definition, and thus reflects the historical context of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Faustian legends surround Robert Johnson, one of the most influential and talented blues musicians ever. It was said that Johnson, out of the desire to be a great musician, met with the devil as a young man at a crossroads and gave his soul in exchange for mastery of the guitar. One of his most notable songs, Hellhound on My Trail, can be interpreted as telling the story of the devil coming for what he’s owed and the folk magic used in a last attempt to evade him. Another song, Cross Road Blues, describes the speaker asking God for mercy as he kneels at a crossroads.
The crossroads is an ominous motif in folklore and superstition, regarded as a place where one is likely to meet a ghost or, in this case, the devil. The popularity of the Faustian myth and the fact that Johnson died quite young add to the story. Although the legend has been widely discussed in this context, there is little evidence that Johnson had anything to do with the occult. However, he was said to have practiced in graveyards, as they offered a quiet, private space in which to play.
While the content of these songs is evidence that Johnson was aware of the folklore he was a part of, it is little evidence that he made any supernatural deals himself. When musicians appeal to the Faustian myth, is more for the sake of a good story than anything else. These many great musicians obviously did not really sell their souls for their talent. The ’devil’ or any other great evil feared by African American blues musicians was far more likely to stand for racial discrimination than any supernatural being. However, the key issue behind folklore is not whether any of it is ‘real’; it is the endurance of stories like the Faustian myth that fascinates us.
-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege