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DID BLUES LEGENDS SELL SOULS TO DEVIL?

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In the classic Charlie Daniels Band song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," the hero in the story, Johnny, challenges the devil to a fiddle-playing duel and wins a gold fiddle in the bargain.

The delightfully entertaining story, which revolves around Johnny's willingness to risk his soul "cause I'm the best that's ever been," actually puts a contemporary twist on a slice of black folklore that has come to characterize the Delta blues.Originally, though, the story has nothing to do with Johnny and nothing to do with fiddles. But it has a whole lot to do with a pervasive belief in the 1920s and '30s that certain soon-to-be blues legends had sold their souls to the devil in exchange for their never-before-seen talents.

Blues pioneer Tommy Johnson reputedly did it. So did Robert Johnson, considered by some blues historians to be the greatest country blues guitarist of his generation.

Now, in the wake of a new release of "Jimi Hendrix: Blues" (MCA Records), bluesologists suggest that Hendrix, too, may have become so enamored with the legend that his self-destructive tendencies - which eerily parallel those of Robert Johnson three decades before - was fueled by a belief that he too had contracted with the devil.

According to voodoo folklore, If you want to make a contract with the devil, first you trim your nails as close as you possibly can. Take a black cat bone and a guitar and go to a lonely fork in the road (a crossroads) at midnight. sit down there and play your best piece, thinking of and wishing for the devil all the while. By and by you will hear music, dim at first but louder and louder as the musician approaches nearer; do not look around; just keep on playing your guitar. The unseen musician will finally sit down by you. After a while you will feel something tugging at your instrument. Do not try to hold it. Let the devil take it and keep thumping along with your fingers as if you had a guitar in your hands. Then the devil will hand you his instrument to play and accompany you on yours. After doing this for a time he will seize your fingers and trim your nails till they bleed, finally taking his guitar back and returning your own. Keep on playing; do not look around. His music will become fainter and fainter as he moves away. When all is quiet you may go home. You will be able to play any piece you desire on the guitar and you can do anything you want to do in the world, but you have sold your soul to the devil and are his in the world to come.

The Jimi Hendrix-Robert Johnson parallel is undeniably spooky. Both were hailed as guitar legends, both were addicted to fame and booze, both were possessed by wanderlust, both died in their 20s before their genius had fully blossomed and both had resigned themselves to the belief they were going to hell. And both wrote extensively about it.

Johnson wrote of a "Hellhound on My Trail" and he pleaded for but did not expect the Lord's mercy on "Crossroads Blues." On "Preachin' Blues" he described the blues as a "low-down shaking chill . . . like consumption killing me by degrees." And on "Me and the Devil" he laments "I believe it's time to go . . . you may bury my body down by the highway side."

Hendrix, on the other hand, championed himself as a "Voodoo Chile," and on a song by the same title he described a mythical mountain lion who sets him on an eagle's wing. And the lion said "Fly on, fly on, you're a Voodoo Chile."

On "Gypsy Eyes," Hendrix sang about walking down a road searching for his soul "but first I must make my get away, two strange men fightin' to the death over me today."

Hendrix used a host of metaphors to echo the voodoo theme throughout his short career. According to an article in the November 1990 issue of Living Blues - the bible of the Blues - both Hendrix and Johnson truly believed they were possessed by spirits and both men were tormented by that fact. That torment was reflected in the words and sounds of their music.

Hendrix's girlfriend in the mid-1960s recalled "He was so tormented and just so torn apart, like he was obsessed with something really evil . . . He'd talk about us going down there (Georgia) and having some root lady drive this demon out of him."

Whoever the root lady was, she never could drive the demons out of Jimi Hendrix. Whether Robert Johnson ever tried a voodoo cure is unknown. He died eight years after reportedly making his pact with the devil, the victim of poisoning.

The irony of Johnson's death is that he was on the verge of national stardom. Famed talent scout John Hammond had listened to some rare acetate recordings of Johnson's "Terraplane Blues" and "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" and Hammond was convinced Johnson was the greatest primitive blues player ever. He wanted Johnson to perform at his "Spirituals of Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall and to record new music for the growing "race record" market.

In 1938, Hammond and Don Law, who had recorded 29 Johnson songs in a Texas studio in 1936 and 1937, set out to find the wandering bluesman, searching one Mississippi Delta juke joint after another.

They found him in a Mississippi cemetery. Not yet 30 years old, he had died just weeks before, the victim of a "Kind Hearted Woman" he so loved to sing about. The result, the voodoo folklore will be forever embodied in the blues.

A postscript: Robert Johnson fans were treated to the complete collection of the master's recording several years back. Now, Columbia/Legacy has rereleased "Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers" on 24-karat gold disk. The disk contains 16 of Johnson's best tunes remastered to remarkable fidelity.

It's almost as if you are sitting in the studio. With a ghost that plays unworldly blues.