It’s origins are in the German legend of Faust. Although Faust is successful, he remains dissatisfied with his life. He makes a pact with the devil for endless pleasure and knowledge in exchange for his soul.
The most famous retellings of this legend are in books by English author Christopher Marlow and German writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Thomas Mann.
I am particularly fond of the short story The Devil and Daniel Webster by American author Stephen Vincent Benet. In this version, the protagonist hires the famed lawyer Daniel Webster to get him out of the deal he made with the devil.
Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini was the rock star of his day. His technical prowess appeared supernatural to observers. Women threw themselves at him. This led to rumors that he had sold his soul to the devil.
In the Mississippi Delta, the land is so flat that one of the only landmarks is the crossroad. Since cars were more likely to slow down or stop at a crossroad, hitchhikers would hang out there hoping for rides. In Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues, he begs for God’s mercy, because he is stranded at the crossroad and it is getting dark.
Although, he never explicitly mentions the devil or selling his soul for his talent, it has been interpreted that way. Other songs such as Hellhound on My Trail, help to bolster this image of Johnson being in league with the devil.
©2016 Stephen L. Martin
Photo: Robert Johnson