The idea that you can sell your soul for musical prowess has been attached to some musicians before (Niccolo Paganini), but the idea is usually associated with early 20th century bluesman Robert Johnson.
Branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician, he was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery’s plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar from Johnson, tuned the guitar so that he could play anything that he wanted, and handed it back to him in return for his soul. Within less than a year’s time, in exchange for his everlasting soul, Robert Johnson became the king of the Delta blues singers, able to play, sing, and create the greatest blues anyone had ever heard.
The crossroads in folk mythology of many cultures represents a place that is neither here nor there, a gateway between worlds that is open to supernatural happenings[wiki cross], like this supposed bargain with the Devil (or Papa Legba of the Voudo tradition in some of the tales).
It was believed that Johnson’s playing had gotten too good, too fast, he had disappeared for a year and gone from barely being able to play to a master of his craft.
What seems more likely is the old story of practice makes perfect, that during his year or more of absence, Johnson played as much as he could, learning much from unrecorded guitarist, Ike Zinnerman.
Ike Zinnerman was born in Grady, Alabama, in the early years of the century and had always told his wife that he had learned to play guitar in a graveyard at midnight while sitting atop tombstones. In any event, he could really play the blues and Robert knew it–he attached himself to Ike for the next couple of years and kept the older man up late into the night learning what he could about the guitar and the blues Ike played on it.
Johnson seems to have claimed occasionally that he had sold his soul to the Devil, but it is not clear that he meant it seriously. Son House once told the story to Pete Welding as an explanation of Johnson’s astonishingly rapid mastery of the guitar. Welding reported it as a serious belief in a widely read article in Down Beat in 1966. However, other interviewers failed to elicit any confirmation from House. Moreover, there were fully two years between House’s observation of Robert as first a novice and then a master.