Published Nov. 6, 2007
Niccolo Paganini, says the “Forgotten English” calendar, was the first musical superstar, producing “giddiness and ecstatic collapse among female members of his audience ...” His amazing skill on the violin led people to claim that he had made a pact with the devil.
Paganini, born Oct. 28, 1782, set a standard for showmanship in violin playing, using harmonics, pizzicato (plucked) effects and new fingerings, and influenced generations of violinists. But he wasn’t the first musician to be associated with the devil.
Musical alliances with Old Scratch were a common theme in violin playing and especially in Celtic fiddling, which was associated with the devil because it compelled people to dance and young people to fraternize too closely. The kirk (the Scottish term for church) banned dancing and dance music long ago, thus depleting the traditional repertoire of dance tunes until the kirk lightened up and composers and fiddlers began writing tunes again, starting in the late 1600s. The legends persisted though and survive in a wealth of tunes and songs with “devil” in the title, both in British Isles fiddling and in American tunes.
The devil and fiddling are best known these days in the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band. Daniels sings of a young man playing hot fiddle who is challenged by the devil. The devil “bet a fiddle of gold against your soul, because I think I’m better than you.” Johnny takes the challenge and wins, and the devil presents him with the golden fiddle.
Daniels’ songs are grounded in Southern folklore, which said that a fiddler who waited at a crossroads at midnight would be met by Lucifer, who would grant virtuosity and a life of fame and riches in exchange for the fiddler’s soul. The significance of the crossroads may arise from Celtic beliefs that borders, whether physical or temporal, were places or times when the boundaries between the physical and spirit world were more fluid. Halloween, the day before Samhain, Nov. 1, the first day of winter in Celtic culture, was a border between seasons, the day when the dead returned to visit their descendants. Stiles, the stairs over stone walls, were considered borders, and dusk, the time between day and night, was another.
The crossroads deal was initiated by the musician, but sometimes the devil came unbidden. At a British Isles wedding party long ago, according to legend, the new bride’s tirade conjured Beezlebub. The fiddler had been playing for the happy dancers but packed up when the sun set, it being Saturday evening, stating he would not play on the Sabbath. The bride cursed him and said she would have dancing if she had to call on the devil himself.
Soon a cloaked man arrived, took a flute from the folds of his cloak and began to play. The dancers were hypnotized by the music but soon discovered they couldn’t stop dancing despite their exhaustion, and eventually they noticed cloven hooves under the hem of the stranger’s cloak. In the morning a circle of stones stood in their place.
The crossroads theme was carried over in the 20th century to blues guitar. It was said that Robert Johnson, the first great blues guitarist and singer, sold his soul, and Johnson is the inspiration for two movies. In “Crossroads,” Joe Seneca plays an old black blues musician who sold his soul as a youth to the devil and fights for his soul because the devil failed to grant wealth and fame. Johnson’s legend is also invoked, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” when our three heroes pick up Tommy Johnson, a young black man standing with a guitar at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere:
“What’d the devil give you for your soul, Tommy?” asks Everett, and Tommy replies, “He taught me to play this guitar real good.” “Oh, Tommy, for that you traded your everlasting soul?” asks Delmar, who has recently been saved, and Tommy replies in all innocence, “I wasn’t usin’ it none.” The movie is whimsical but is firmly rooted in Southern folklore. And toward the end, Tommy and his friends are on their knees, praying for forgiveness, like Robert Johnson.
“I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees Asked the Lord above, have mercy now, save poor Bob if you please ...” — Robert Johnson, “Crossroads Blues”