• Robb G. Best

Sacrifice, Mastery and a Deal with the Devil

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, in examining the lives of Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, T. S. Eliot, Martha Graham, and Mohandas Gandhi, suggests that there is a certain Faustian bargain to genius level mastery that is often required, sacrificing other important things in your life in order to harness your full focus and attention towards your passion.

“My study reveals that, in one way or another, each of the creators became embedded in some kind of a bargain, deal, or Faustian arrangement, executed as a means of ensuring the preservation of his or her unusual gifts. In general, the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal experience.”[1]

That idea has been forever immortalized in the story of bluesman Robert Johnson. In 1935, Robert Johnson went to a lonely crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in order to become the greatest blues guitarist of all time, or so the story goes. Prior to Johnson’s storied Faustian bargain, famous Delta bluesmen like Son House claimed Johnson had been ‘embarrassingly’ bad on the guitar and a general pain in the ass around Robinsonville Mississippi, pestering anyone with a guitar to teach him how to play.

Eventually Johnson left town, and legend has it that when he came back three months later, after making his deal with the Devil, Johnson was the best damn blues player anyone had ever heard.[2]

The likelihood of what actually happened is probably much less spectacular but no less interesting. Some historians suggest that Johnson left town for considerably longer then three months and studied extensively with a talented bluesman named Ike Zinnerman.

We can speculate that under the mentorship of a presumably highly skilled player like Zinnerman, and given Johnson’s rage to master, he found himself in the perfect deliberate practice laboratory, of tutelage, practice and performance. Combine this with the fact that music appeared to be his true desire and his sole means for carving out a meager existence and we might say he was doubly inspired to succeed.

Johnson spent the rest of his life playing guitar and singing on street corners and juke joints. He never had a permanent address, traveling anywhere at the drop of a hat where people would listen. Performing consumed his life.

Between 1936 and ‘37 Johnson recorded 29 songs for the American Record Corporation. Under their Vocalion label a total of twelve of Johnson’s songs were released.[3] Those twelve songs are now part of the canon of American music with titles like, “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Walking Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” "Come On In My Kitchen,” "Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” "Terraplane Blues," and "Last Fair Deal Gone Down," Recorded by a whole host of artists including Bonnie Rait, Elmore James, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, The Allman brothers and the Rolling Stones.[4]

Keith Richards hearing Johnson’s recordings for the first time reportedly asked, "Who is the other guy playing with him?" believing Johnson was accompanied by a second guitarist. "I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realize he was doing it all by himself."[5] Richards told an interviewer, "Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself."[6]

Eric Clapton is quoted as saying, “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.”[7]

Johnson’s need to travel and perform meant he eschewed close relationships and unfortunately, Johnson had an eye for the ladies, married or not. In 1938 it was said he was poisoned with tainted whiskey by a jealous husband during a break in one of his performances. He died in relative obscurity at the age of 27.

The good news is that a bargain with the Devil is not a prerequisite for pushing yourself to the edge of your abilities, but as Gardner reminds us, there is no getting around the fact that the time commitment and level of intensity and focus necessary to achieve expert level mastery creates a certain amount of sacrifice in your life.

[1] Changing Minds, by Howard Gardner

[2] The Country Blues, by Samuel Charters

[3] 100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own By Edward Komara & Greg Johnson

[4] RobertJohnsonbluesfoundation.org

[5] Buncombe, Andrew (July 26, 2006). "The Grandfather of Rock'n'Roll: The Devil's Instrument". The Independent.

[6] Myers, Marc (April 22, 2011). "Still Standing at the Crossroads". Wall Street Journal.

[7] RobertJohnsonbluesfoundation.org

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