There is a legend, old as time itself, that proposes an intrinsic relationship between music and the occult. It is an affiliation carved into the very fabric of musical rhetoric.
“Why should the Devil have all the good music?” Could the answer be found within prevalent claims that the musical canon is sprinkled with protagonists who have struck Faustian pacts with ol’ Beezlebub – exchanging their soul for devilish musical artistry?
“The workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created.” (Ezekiel 28:13)
Lucifer (Latin meaning: ‘The Morning Star’) was created by God as the anointed cherub, the most powerful of God’s angelic beings. Begot with the makings of instruments built into his very being, Lucifer was the heavenly choir director, leading the songs of praise.
When Satan fell in rebellion against God he did not lose the natural abilities that God had placed upon him. Therefore, he kept the tabrets and the pipes. But now, he did not use them to bring glory to the Lord but to turn God’s creatures against their Creator and spread his own infernal message.
“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” (Isaiah 14:12-14)
Giuseppe Tartini (8 April 1692 – 26 February 1770)
During the 18th Century, violin virtuoso Giuseppe Tartini composed the Devil’s Trill Sonata, a piece so complicated many modern players struggle to master it – one myth stated that Tartini had six digits on his left hand, making these trills easier for him to play. The composition itself originated from the depths of Tartini’s subconscious, he claimed that the Devil came to him in a dream and played a violin sonata that was beyond any realm of beauty he had previously experienced:
“One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and – I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the “Devil’s Trill”, but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me.”
Niccolo Paganini (27 October 1782–27 May 1840)
Considered by many the greatest violin virtuosi to have ever lived, Niccolo Paganini cut an imposing figure. He was tall and thin, and had a pale, long-drawn face with hollow cheeks and thin lips that seemed to curl into a sardonic smile beneath piercing eyes. His complexion was white as chalk and his long tussled hair dark as night.
Dressed head to toe in black, Paganini would play. Weaving and flailing, his skinny fingers cavorting over the strings, as his contorted shoulders gave him the appearance of a giant, frantic bat. Paganini’s every movement and tone seemed to support the age-old tale that the violin was indeed the Devil’s consort.
Playing with such ferocity and eccentric facial contortions, he appeared to be a man possessed. As he flailed around the stage, he created tender passages that would bring audiences to tears. One of his most famous pieces was called Le Streghe, which translates to Witches’ Dance.
His otherworldly technical ability and cadaverous appearance prompted many to suggest malefic connections, believing that he either made a pact with the Devil, or was in fact Lucifer incarnate. Some, when in his presence, would actually make the sign of the cross to rid themselves of what they believed were his evil powers. Soon, ominous rumours spread: it was said that Paganini’s violin strings were made using the guts of murdered women, while others claimed to see the devil standing next to him as he played.
Upon his death, Paganini was refused the Last Rites in the Church and his body was denied a Catholic burial in Genoa. It took four years, and an appeal to the Pope, before the body was allowed to be transported to Genoa, but was still not buried. His remains were finally put to rest in 1876 in a cemetery in Parma.
Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton (October 20, 1890–July 10, 1941)
“I invented jazz” is how Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton frequently introduced himself. And he was probably right: the New Orleans ragtime jazz composer’s 1915 piece Jelly Roll Blues was the first published jazz composition.
However, Morton’s talent stemmed from a place much darker than the vibrant upbeat music he composed.
It is said that Jelly’s godmother, Eulalie Echo, a French-speaking Creole who practised voodoo, sacrificed Jelly’s soul to Satan as part of a black magic ritual in exchange for inhuman musical talent and fame.
What followed was a prolific career as Morton took his place as the most supreme figure in America’s thriving jazz scene. In 1939, the record company, Victor, offered Jelly a recording contract and, as the leading composer and conductor of early jazz, Morton could afford to wear diamonds in his teeth and on his sock-supporters – leading to his trademark rhinestone-studded smile.
Morton got his side of the deal, and so the time came when he had to keep up his side of the pact. Two years after signing with Victor, his old voodoo godmother Eulalie Echo was dead. Jelly’s girlfriend, Anita Gonzales once explained:
“Jelly always knew she’d sold him to Satan and that when she died, he’d die too – she would take him down with her.”
Two months after Eulalie’s death, in 1941, Morton passed away. He was 46 years old. It is said that on his deathbed he was calling for holy oil to cheat the devil of his godmother’s bargain.
The Devil’s Interval
The Augmented 4th chord that signifies the Blues scale sound – when combined with the root note – is known as ‘Tonus Diabolicus’, or ‘The Devil’s Interval’.
Originally, when late Roman-Empire monks were notating ancient Greek music; they put spiritual significance on the effect of different intervals. It was thought that using this interval invoked sexual feelings, and would even conjure up Satan himself. In Medieval times, the use of this interval was prohibited.
Peetie Wheatstraw (December 21, 1902–December 21, 1941)
St. Louis blues musician Peetie Wheatstraw was commonly known both as ‘the Devil’s Son-in-Law’ and ‘The High Sheriff of Hell’. Wheatstraw claimed that he had sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for musical success. And success he had, cutting upwards of 170 tracks for the ARC, Bluebird and Decca labels before his death in 1941, and at his peak in the ‘30s, he was the equivalent of a superstar.
Born on December 21, 1902, Wheatstraw died on the same day 39 years after as he and his friends tried unsuccessfully to race their car through a crossroads with a freight train bearing down on them, finally giving, as the legend dictates, the devil his due.
Robert Johnson (May 8, 1911–August 16, 1938)
In Rosedale, Mississippi, where highways 61 and 49 intersect, stands a crossroads. Some claim that it is at this particular locale where the Delta Blues emerged as a manifest entity in the person and music of blues player Robert Johnson.
The legend goes that during the 1930s Johnson ventured to the Mississippi crossroads at midnight to make a Faustian pact with the devil himself, with guitar in-hand and a hellacious chord, Johnson and the devil struck an accord. The deal? Johnson’s eternal soul in exchange for unearthly guitar talents.
Johnson’s new aptitude was immediate. In fact, Son House – a boyhood idol of Robert Johnson and one of the most highly regarded blues guitarists of all time – claimed that Johnson’s seemingly overnight metamorphosis from a poor guitar player laughed off stage to a master of the blues could have only been down to devilish forces. “He sold his soul to play like that,” the bluesman once said.
Following that infamous night, Johnson returned with formidable technique, a mastery of the blues and a set of songs that eluded to his infamous pact. “Me and the Devil/Was walkin’ side by side” wails Johnson on his track Me and the Devil Blues.
When the Devil did come for the fated musician, Johnson was just 27. As legend has it, Johnson was poisoned by his lover’s jealous boyfriend. His death was a violent array of howling and convulsions as he claimed frantically that he heard and saw ferrous huge dogs, hellhounds, coming for him before dying right then and there; as the most popular blues player, the wish that he had always wanted.
Jimi Hendrix (November 27, 1942–September 18, 1970)
Jimi ‘voodoo child’ Hendrix held a keen interest in spiritism. Kwasi Dzidzornu, a conga player who often played with Hendrix, was from a village in Ghana, West Africa, where his father was a voodoo priest. It’s been said that one of the first things Dzidzornu asked Jimi was where he got his voodoo rhythm from, as many of Hendrix’s signature rhythms were the very same ones that Dzidzornu’s father played in voodoo ceremonies.
Alan Douglas, Hendrix’s road manager and producer expressed his concern for the musician’s wellbeing. “One of the biggest things about Jimi was what he believed in. He believed that he was possessed by some spirit and I got to believe it myself and that is what we had to deal with all the time. And he was very humble about discussing it with people because he didn’t want people to feel he was being pretentious and so on, but he really believed it and he was wrestling with it constantly.”
The legendary guitar player’s long-term girlfriend Fayne Pridgon shared these worries:
“He used to always talk about some devil, something was in him and he didn’t’ have any control over it. He didn’t know what made him act the way he acted and what made him say the things he said and songs and different things like that just come out of him… you know. It seems like to me he was so tormented and so torn apart and he really was He’d talk about us going down to Georgia and obsessed with something really evil. having some root lady drive this demon out of him.”
On September 18, 1970, at the age of 27, Hendrix died of Asphyxia.
Jim Morrison (December 8, 1943–July 3, 1971)
The Doors’ frontman, and self-proclaimed “Lizard King”, Jim Morrison attributed much of the direction of his life to an incident that occurred when he was very young. Travelling with his family, he came upon an accident that had left several American Indians dead, scattered along the highway. Through his poetry on The Ghost Song  Morrison described what happened next: “The souls and the ghosts of those dead Indians, maybe one or two of them, were just running around freaking out and just leaped into my soul. And they’re still there.
Possession by these spirits led to a life and art obsessed with death and the occult: “Cancel my subscription to the resurrection. Send my credentials to the house of detention.” (When the Music’s Over, The Doors)
Morrison frequently went under the moniker “Mr. Mojo Risin”, an anagram of the letters in his name. Mojo is a religious term describing shamanic “power icon” or affiliation, the African root ‘Mo’ refers to the dark or darkness.
Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
Cause I’m in need of some restraint
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, um yeah