Selling Your Soul

by Jungreis

In class, we talked about various rumors that surrounded Paganini. One was that he had sex with women and then murdered them to use their intestines to string his violins. The other was that he sold his soul to the Devil in order to acquire his immense technical violin skills. While the former rumor seems like an odd way for jealousy to manifest, the latter makes a lot of sense to me, and in some sense – certainly not a supernatural one — is kind of true.

Long ago, there was a blues guitarist named Robert Johnson. His playing was somewhat simple compared to a more modern blues player like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Nonetheless, Johnson was regarded as very good, and his influence on 60s blues-rock alone justifies his inclusion on lists of great guitarists. That same rumor appeared around him: Robert Johnson went to a crossroads in Mississippi and made a deal with the Devil, exchanging his soul for his guitar skills.

I do not believe that story, though I see where it comes from. Johnson must have played an awful lot to acquire his skills. Consequently, most of his time must have been spent practicing rather than pursuing activities that society deems more important that guitar playing. If he was spending 15 hours every day practicing, which is a number that is about what modern virtuoso players cite as how much they practiced when they were obsessive, that’s 75 hours without even counting weekends, and this was not a high school kid with nothing better to do over the summer. This was an adult who probably needed a job. In that sense, while he didn’t sell his soul in any supernatural way, Johnson did indeed make a massive sacrifice to become as good as he was. I have to think that the same was true of Paganini.