Sunday, April 22, 2012

[PL 211] I sold my soul for rock 'n' roll

In this Radiolab podcast, two explanations are mentioned as to why Robert Johnson became an awesome blues musician.

The first explanation is that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil who, in return, gave him the ability to play the blues like no one else.

The second explanation is that Robert Johnson was about to get married and become a father but his future wife died during child labor. This tragedy made him a better blues musician.

Is the second explanation obviously better than the first? Or do you find the second explanation just as mysterious as a causal mechanism for becoming a better musician as the second? After all, how is grief from personal loss supposed to make one a better musician?


  1. Grief from personal loss might actually contribute to being a better musician. Musicians often talk about how music is an expression of their deep emotions and so it's not surprising that the more robust one's emotional life, the more emotion he/she has to express. In addition, music can be a therapeutic endeavor and can help one cope with grief. This might have caused him to play more often (he had more free time, it helped him deal with his pain, etc.). Practice, after all, is probably the best explanation for why he got so much better.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jesse.

      Your comment suggests that the causal chain in this case is more complex than it seems. Robert Johnson became a better blues musician, not as a direct result of his personal loss, but rather as a result of playing more music to cope with grief. So the causal chain looks roughly like this: death of wife and unborn child -> grief -> playing more music to cope with grief -> becoming a better musician.

      I think you're probably right about this, but it does raise an interesting question. Isn't the devil explanation simpler than the one outlined above? It seems that the devil explanation postulates a simpler causal chain.

  2. I think the "devil explanation" actually involves a variety of things that are fairly complex/more complicated than the alternative explanation. It seems to presuppose that the devil exists, that he's a super-natural being that is inherently evil, that he has an interest in acquiring souls, etc. We have to thus credence souls, that the devil had a desire for Robert's soul, that a being could exchange (magically?!) the ability to play guitar well for one's soul, etc. There is therefore a great deal packed into this explanation. Indeed, it seems to to be a much more complicated explanation than simply that Robert was sad, practiced a lot, and thus improved.

    What's the lesson? I guess the principle of parsimony is a difficult thing to wield. At first glance, I agree that the devil explanation is a simple one. But, after some reflection, it just doesn't seem so simple.

    What do you think about this, Think?

    1. Jesse,

      Your remarks seem very reasonable to me. So I can't say I disagree with you. However (to play devil's advocate :), I can imagine someone thinking that entities such as emotions and processes such as relieving emotional pain by playing music are no less mysterious than entities such as demons and processes such as selling souls. Emotions are obviously more familiar to us than demons (if there are any). But being familiar is different from being intelligible. The two don't always coincide.


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