The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum


Contributed by Susan LoGuidice, Forrestdale School, Rumson, NJ

Rationale

The Faust theme, that of risking eternal damnation by selling one’s soul to the devil in exchange for magical powers, can be found in virtually every genre of music as well as in literature and the visual arts. Examples utilizing this theme can be found as early as biblical times as a means of understanding humanity’s place in the universe and the struggle between good and evil. This interdisciplinary lesson focuses on the life and music of bluesman Robert Johnson as a twentieth-century interpretation of this famous myth and demonstrates thematic connections between various art forms.

Objectives

The student will be able to: 

  1. define the Faust theme and understand its long history as a means of understanding humanity’s place in the universe and the struggle between good and evil.
  2. recognize the connection between examples from varied genres of music, film, and literature and the Faust theme.
  3. imagine a scenario in which a contemporary individual might be willing to “sell his/her soul,” and create a song lyric, poem or short story employing the Faust theme.
  4. perform/present the created piece.

Audience

This unit could be adapted for general music, music appreciation and language arts classes grades 7-12 by varying the selection of materials and activities. It could be expanded to include the creation/performance of songs using 12-bar blues form (either a standard blues melody or an original one) with lyrics employing the Faust theme.

Time Frame

The approximate time frame is three class periods, but will vary depending upon the selection of materials and the time necessary for the presentation of student pieces. The creation of the pieces would be an ongoing assignment.

Materials

copies of lyrics and CD/tapes of selected songs; selected excerpts from the 1986 movie Crossroads; selected excerpts from Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie (1995); a VCR/monitor and CD/tape player.

Background

Based on a 16th-century German story about a magician and alchemist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power and knowledge, the Faust legend has become one of the most famous myths of all time. It has retained its relevance throughout the centuries with numerous authors and composers exploring the theme. Literary examples include Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Goethe’s early 19th-century poem Faust, and Stephen Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster(1967). In the musical arts, numerous well-known examples can be found, including Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1854), Charles Gounod’s operaFaust (1859), and Hector Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust (1846). In this century, the 1955 Broadway musical Damn Yankees (based upon the novelThe Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant) combined the Faust legend with baseball and showed the continued popularity of this theme, running for well over a thousand performances. Another modern example is the Charlie Daniels Band song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” a Top 40 hit in 1979.

Besides dealing with the moral dilemma of good versus evil, the Faust theme has also long been used as a means of understanding or rationalizing a performer’s virtuosity. During the Romantic Era, virtuoso violinist Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) wrote and performed music so difficult that it was believed by many that he was in league with the devil, a story he encouraged as a means of increasing his fame. Such was also the case with legendary blues musician Robert Johnson (1911-1938).

Robert Johnson, a 1986 RRHFM inductee, stands at the crossroads of American music, much as a popular folk legend has it he once stood at a Mississippi crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar-playing prowess. He became the first modern bluesman, linking the country blues of the Mississippi Delta with the city blues of the post-World War II era. Johnson was a songwriter of searing depth and a guitar player with a commanding ability that inspired no less an admirer than Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones to exclaim, “When I first heard [him], I was hearing two guitars, and it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself.” Another Johnson disciple, Eric Clapton has said, “Robert Johnson to me is the most important blues musician who ever lived....I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.”

Born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1911, Johnson was ill-suited for sharecropping and gravitated instead toward the itinerant life of the musician. During the early thirties, Johnson lit out with his guitar and earned his keep as an entertainer. His travels took him throughout the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas, where he performed at juke joints, country suppers and levee camps. He also saw the big cities, performing in St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago and elsewhere. His entire recorded output was cut in three days in November 1936 and two days in June 1937. His life came to a premature end when he was allegedly poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he began seeing during a stint at the Three Forks juke joint in Greenwood, Mississippi. Though he recorded only 29 songs in his brief career, Johnson nonetheless altered the course of American music. Such classics as “Terraplane Blues,” “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain” and “Sweet Home Chicago” are the bedrock upon which modern blues and rock and roll were built.

Procedures

 

  1. Discuss the Faust legend and how successive generations of artists and other intellectuals have recreated this cautionary tale to fit the prevailing climate of their own times.
  2. Discuss legendary blues musician Robert Johnson, including his rumored “pact with the devil.” Distribute copies of the lyrics for “Cross Road Blues” and have the class analyze and discuss the lyrics. What is the crossroads? (a point where a decision must be made and a course of action chosen). Who was his “friend-boy Willie Brown”? (a male friend - legendary harmonica player Willie Brown). Listen to the original Robert Johnson version of the song (1936) followed by the cover by Cream (1967). Discuss which version the class prefers and which version best conveys the dilemma and angst of the decision to be made. Why have so many covers of this song been made? (See list under additional recordings.)
  3. View and then discuss the final scene of the movie Crossroads in which Eugene must face-off in a guitar duel against the devil’s choice of an opponent in order to free both Willie and himself from a contract with the devil.
  4. Ask the students to imagine a modern day circumstance or dilemma in which an individual might be tempted to “sell his soul” to the devil.
  5. Assign the students to create a song lyric, poem or short story employing the Faust theme in present times.
  6. Read aloud the opening scene of Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues in which Robert Johnson is seen standing at the crossroads on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Discuss the cultural assimilation that takes place as Thomas Builds-the-Fire “strummed the strings, felt a small pain in the palms of his hands, and heard the first sad note of the reservation blues.”
  7. Distribute copies of the lyrics to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” listen to the Charlie Daniels Band version of the song and discuss the outcome of the story and why the story continues to be so popular. Why do so many stories employing the Faust theme have the same outcome? Do you know of any that do not?
  8. Each student will perform or present their original piece based upon the Faust legend.

Evaluation

The evaluation and conclusion of the unit will be the performance/ presentation of the student’s created piece.

Selected Recordings

“Cross Road Blues” recorded by Robert Johnson (Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings, Columbia, 1990); lyrics and music by Robert Johnson; King of Spades Music.

“Crossroads” recorded by Cream (Strange Brew - The Very Best of Cream, PolyGram Records, 1983); lyrics and music by Robert Johnson; King of Spades Music.

“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” recorded by Charlie Daniels Band (A Decade of Hits, Epic Records, 1983); lyrics and music by Crain, Daniels, DiGregorio, Edwards, Hayward, Marshall; Music Corporation of America Inc.

Other Recordings

“Damn Yankees” recorded by Original Broadway Cast (Damn Yankees Original Broadway Cast Recording, PolyGram Records, 1994)

A sampling of recorded covers of Johnson’s “Cross Roads Blues” include: 
“Crossroads” recorded by the Allman Brothers Band (Dreams, Polygram, 1989)

“Crossroad Blues” recorded by Rory Block (High Heeled Blues, Rounder Records, 1989)

“Crossroads” recorded by Ry Cooder and Sonny Terry (Crossroads Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Warner Brothers Records, Inc., 1986)

“Crossroads” recorded by Cowboy Junkies (Whites Off the Earth Now!, RCA, 1991)

“Crossroads” recorded by Turtle Island String Quartet (Sky Life, Windham Hill, 1990)

“Crossroads” recorded by Derek & the Dominoes (Live at the Fillmore, Polygram, 1994)

“Crossroads” recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd (One More From the Road, UNI/MCA, 1996)

“Crossroads” recorded by Stephen Stills (Stephen Stills Live, WEA/Atlantic, 1987)

Enrichment/Additional Resources

Alexie, Sherman. Reservation Blues. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.

Benet, Stephen Vincent. The Devil and Daniel Webster. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1967.

Carliner, Mark (producer). Crossroads. Columbia Pictures, 1986.

Greenberg, Alan. Love in Vain: a vision of Robert Johnson. A play with a foreword by Martin Scorsese; intro by Stanley Crouch. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.

Guralnik, Peter. Searching for Robert Johnson. New York: Dutton, c 1989.

Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of Blues. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1994.

Wallop, Douglas. Damn Yankees. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1982.