Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Devil, the Fairy Queen & Enlightenment

One of the things that popped into my head as I was thinking about the blues was the story of Robert Johnson. One of the most enigmatic figures in blues, they say that he grew up wanting to play and that he was pretty good.

But then one day he disappeared. Legend has it that he went down to the crossroads near Dockery Plantation in Mississippi at midnight. When he returned, suddenly he was able to play leaps and bounds above anything he ever did before. His legacy includes songs that are part of the core of the blues tradition and have been rerecorded by many different singers and musicans since then. He claimed he traded his soul to the Devil in return for his great musical ability. Did he really do that? Or was he just pulling everybody's leg?

A similar legend surrounds one of the greatest harpists and composers of Ireland, Turlough O'Carolan. He became blind as a result of a childhood bout of smallpox and spent most of his adult life traveling and playing music and gaining great fame for his music. They say that both weddings and funerals would be delayed until he could arrive to play.

Then one day, Carolan disappeared for a while and when he returned, he presented a new music he called planxties, which had a different rhythm from the familiar jigs, reels and lullabies, and he said that he learned this from the Fairy Queen during a visit to the underworld. More than 220 tunes that survive to this day were composed by him. He wrote lyrics for a number of them, but most musicians downplay the importance of these and focus on the melodies. Did he really get his gifts from the Queen of the fairies? Or was he also pulling everyone's leg?

What more powerful third mysterious musical character could be added to this trio of mysteries than Beethoven? He composed some of the greatest of his works after he was completely deaf. Beethoven also possessed great skills recognized at an early age and studied with many teachers, including Haydn. Yet he did not attribute his compositional skills to anyone else. He simply kept doing what he was inspired to do, Beethoven's struggles with illness and deafness could also be described as journeys to the underworld, which also informed his music. Who knows how much those incredible soaring melodies that we all know can be attributed to the difficulties he suffered and how much these affected his thinking, as well as inspiration from his lovers and muses such as the poet Schiller, his visions, the ideals of enlightenment and in turn, the creation of his work?

Did the Devil, the Fairy Queen or the Enlightenment have any hand in what these three great musicians created? Or were their creations simply so powerful that no one would believe that these were simply the products of three hard working, talented individuals? Did Johnson and Carolan know this and simply play it off, while Beethoven proudly claimed his place as the creator of his work?

What do these three great musical mysteries say about our ability to surpass all limitations and rise to greatness? What do these stories tell us about our ability to connect with spirit in any form in order to tap into even greater reservoirs of strength, beauty and creativity?

1 comment:

karim said...

An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

Thanks,
Karim - Mind Power