Deals with the Devil: A Brief Musical History

If folktales are to be believed, the devil seems to have quite the interest in music.

Whether it’s the satanic imagery, that’s ever pervasive in metal

or the legendary fiddle duel in the Devil Went Down to Georgia, it would appear that the Prince of Darkness likes a good tune as much as you and I.

But, there’s one tale of the Devil in music, that captivates like no other and it’s one that’s been told for centuries — the deal with the Devil.

Nearly everyone knows this kind of story now, and that’s because it has a rich history dating back several centuries.

Let’s take a closer look.

Deals with the devil have appeared in Western mythology for a long time,

but they really first started catching on in the late 1500s

thanks to a man named Johann Faust.

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Faust was a German Alchemist and magician,

who was alleged to have made a pact with the demon Mephistopheles in return for his soul.

His talent became famous after being documented in Christopher Marlowe’s play

“The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus”.

A hundred years later, the myth first made its way into music, thanks to Giuseppe Tartini.

In 1713 the Devil appeared to Tartini in a dream,

and Tartini made a pact for his soul.

In the dream he gave the devil a violin,

and the Devil performed the most beautiful Sonata he had ever heard.

Immediately upon waking up,

Tartini tried to write down what he heard

and created the “Violin Sonata in G”,

better known as the “Devil’s Trill Sonata”.

Despite the success of this piece,

Tartini wrote that his effort was

“… so inferior to what I had heard,

that if I could have subsisted on other means,

I would have broken my violin and abandoned music forever”.

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It would seem that the Devil’s interest in violin didn’t wane,

as rumours of another violinist cohorting with the Devil

came about a century later.

Niccolò Paganini is considered by some to be the greatest violin virtuoso ever to have lived.

He started music at the age of 5 on the mandolin,

was composing by the age of 7

and performing live at 12.

And he was such a virtuoso,

that the public began to surmise that his talents must have come from dark dealings

On top of his skills,

Paganini had a pale lanky look

with long fingers and flaming eyes.

The legends of his performances are something else to behold.

Some reports say audience has made the sign of the Cross as they watched him perform

to protect themselves from evil.

Other stories have him continuing to play flawless notes on broken strings

and contorting his body into weird shapes while performing.

One fan even left a Vienna concert,

claiming he had seen the Devil aiding Paganini.

At the age of 54 Paganini died.

And one of the last things he did before he died,

was send away a priest,

who had come to perform last rites.

This cemented his association with the devil in many people’s minds.

Less than a hundred years later,

legends of the Devil meddling in musical affairs

started once more.

In the 1920s and 30s

pair of blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta

are alleged to have run-ins with the Devil.

First came Tommy Johnson —

a guitar virtuoso known for his eerie yodeling.

Johnson’s brother Liddell spread the legend of Tommy’s Faustian bargain.

One night, the story goes,

Tommy Johnson went to the crossroads

just before midnight

and played guitar until a big black man came up to him,

took his guitar and tuned it.

After that,

Tommy Johnson could play the guitar like no man alive.

Outside of the alleged deal with the Devil

and his influence on blues music,

Johnson’s life was rather uneventful though.

That can’t be said for Robert Johnson —

unrelated to Tommy —

another musician, who apparently made a Faustian bargain.

Johnson was one of the most impressive guitar players of his time

and one of the most important musicians of all time.

And when he was a young man in the late 1920s,

he started to play guitar,

but apparently he had no talent for it.

Fellow blues man Son House famously remembered how Johnson played the guitar:

“Such a racket you never heard!

It would make the people mad, you know.

They’d come out and say

‘Why don’t y’all go in and get that guitar away from that boy!

He’s running people crazy with it.’

I’d come back in and I’d scold him about it

Then one day Robert Johnson left Robinson Vale,

where he had been living.

When he came back, he was a changed man.

Johnson returned with incredible guitar skills.

Sliding around the neck seamlessly,

while maintaining steady rhythms.

Legend has it when Keith Richards first heard Johnson play,

he thought it was two guitar players.

Rumours started to grow that,

like Tommy Johnson before him,

Robert had sold his soul to the Devil

at midnight at a crossroads.

And if you listened to Robert Johnson’s music,

it’s easy to believe it, too.

Atop his virtuoso play

Johnson’s lyrics have a haunting desperation to them

and even sings of his relationship with the Devil.

“Hellhound on My Trail” is a masterful song,

that takes the trope of the rambling blues man

and puts a new spin on it.

The reason Johnson is a traveling wandering vagabond,

is because he’s got hellhounds following him.

You could even look at this song as the middle of a trilogy of songs

chronicling his run-in with the Devil.

“Cross Road Blues” is where he sells his soul,

and then the trilogy ends with “Me and The Devil Blues”,

which has some of the most haunting opening lines ever:

[Early this morning,]

[Ooo]

[When you knocked upon my door]

[And I said “Hello, Satan,]

[I believe it’s time to go.”]

On August 16th, 1938

the Devil came for Robert Johnson’s soul.

Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband

and died at just 27 years old.

Since Robert Johnson,

the Devil has continued his relationship with music,

but no Faustian bargain was like that of Paganini or Robert Johnson have been struck.

At least not that we know of.

Though it’s been nearly a century since Johnson,

so maybe it’s time

for the Devil to dip his toes back into the music game.

Miles Davis and Melodic Minimalism

Miles Davis is by far even more economical than Coltrane.

Almost like a Japanese parchment painting, where you just take the ink and that’s it, man.

It’s there and that’s it.

In “Freddie Freeloader”, Miles does something really beautiful. He gives me a melody of 2 notes.

See, he’s doing the 12 bar blues. It’s the 12 bar blues.

But he does something here:

he cadences on Ab7.

Ab7? Hey…

what key am I in?

Now there are 2 wonderful things that allow us here, as improvisors, to play around.

The first thing is this 6 to 5 resolution.

There’s no resolution to the 1 or to the 3.

It’s 6 to 5. Which means that my melodic gravity is not on 1 or 3. But in the upper part of the scale.

It’s up here.

And if I decide that it’s up here,

it has a whole other flavor. It’s not jazz, it’s not blues. It almost sounds Middle Eastern.

Which then allows me not only to expand on the melodic invention

but the rhythmnic invention, the stylistic invention.

All because basically what Miles has given us is a thematic palette

that does not sit in the stable interval, which is 1 and 3.

Now in all blues, he gives us:

Miles takes that basic pattern,

slows it down,

and uses it as the undercurrent.

And he lets us rock in 6/8 and then he gives us a melody.

Again, the melody is 1 note.

It goes up, and it comes down. What goes up must come down.

This melodic line, starting on the 3rd:

and he hits it again. He hits it a third time.

He’s in the upper part of the pentachord.

He goes to the 4 chord, but he lands on the A, which is the 13th.

And he moves up and down.

See, what goes up must come down. It’s very interesting.

OOH, that 7th! That dissonant. Lets us move.

What’s happening in this melody, even though it’s incredibly simple, is that it keeps moving

it keeps on wanting to go somewhere.

And that of course, then, when we begin to improvise, does the exact same thing.

Because now, we have something to move around with.

You see, I’m moving around

but I’m avoiding the G.

Why am I avoiding that G? Because the G is the tonic

and if I sit and I linger on that G, I have very few places to go.

There’s something else that Miles does that I love

is when he goes to the 5 chord, he doesn’t go down to the 4 chord, which of course would be traditional blues.

He goes… ah, he goes up to the flat 6, and then back to 5 and then back to 1.

And then he focuses there on 1, but his melody has landed on the A, which is the 9th.

It still isn’t settling.

And of course, as the improvisor, the less settled, the more I have to say.