In this song, Satan himself pays a visit to Georgia and challenges a boy named Johnny to a fiddle duel: If Johnny can play the fiddle better than the devil, he gets a golden fiddle, but if he loses, the devil gets his soul. After a sinister performance by the devil, complete with histrionics like fire and demon backup singers, Johnny plays as if he was possessed, nailing a performance inspired by his roots in the Deep South and winning the golden fiddle when the devil concedes defeat.
Charlie Daniels told Songfacts
that the idea for this song came from a poem he read in high school called "The Mountain Whippoorwill" by Stephen Vincent Benet. Said Daniels: "We had gone in and rehearsed, written, and recorded the music for our Million Mile Reflections
album, and all of a sudden we said, 'We don't have a fiddle song.' I don't know why we didn't discover that, but we went out and we took a couple of days' break from the recording studio, went into a rehearsal studio and I just had this idea: 'The Devil went down to Georgia.' The idea may have come from an old poem that Stephen Vincent Benet wrote many, many years ago. He didn't use that line, but I just started, and the band started playing, and first thing you know we had it down."
It was Daniels who played the fiddle for both the Devil and Johnny, and it was also Daniels who dreamed up what they both would sound like. He explains, "The Devil's just blowing smoke. If you listen to that, there's just a bunch of noise. There's no melody to it, there's no nothing, it's just a bunch of noise. Just confusion and stuff. And of course Johnny's saying something: You can't beat the Devil without the Lord. I didn't have that in the song, but I should have."
Daniels has had people tell him they felt the Devil played a better piece, and to this he says, "If you dissect it and listen to it, that's the smoke and mirrors thing about the Devil. There's just nothing there. I mean, there's nothing. There's no music involved."
Stephen Vincent Benet is best known for his American Civil War narrative poem for which he won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize. He wrote The Mountain Whippoorwill after reading an article in the Literary Digest describing how a young Lowe Stokes had defeated the elder statesman of Georgia fiddlers, Fiddlin' John Carson, at the 1924 Atlanta Fiddlers' Convention. In March 1925, Century Magazine first printed Stephen Vincent Benet's literary ballad The Mountain Whippoorwill: How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddler's Prize. The poem's narrator is an orphan child who pictures his father as a "Fiddle made of mountain laurel wood" and his mother as a whippoorwill. He enters and wins the Essex County Fiddlers' Show, after fiddling all night and believing he lost when the crowd goes completely silent. He wins a new fiddle.
This song took The Charlie Daniels Band out of a Southern rock music style and into the world of pop music. The song was a #1 hit on the Country chart, but also crossed over to the pop chart, climbing to #3 on the Hot 100. The song drove the album to sales of over 3 million, but the band had trouble following up until 1989. The years after the song was released, The Charlie Daniels Band spent more time on the rock-crossover charts then on the Country chart where they began.
Aaron - Twin Cities, MN
This won the 1979 Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
The Charlie Daniels Band performed this in the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy. The scene takes plays at Gilley's, which was a real club owned by the country singer Mickey Gilley.
A rap duo called the KMC Kru released a hip-hop version in 1991 where the devil comes to Michigan and battles the KMC DJ with a golden turntable as the prize.
This famous country song appears in the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock as the last song in the game. In the game, it's a heavy metal version performed by Steve Ouimette. The fiddle playing is performed on electric guitar, though the lyrics and general premise remain the same. In the video game, The Devil is the final boss you have to beat, which didn't go over well with Daniels, who has stated his opposition to this video game: "To tell you the truth the whole thing bothered me and struck me as something that is not the healthiest thing in the world for young, impressionable minds to be exposed to, but the thing that really got me was what they had done with my song. The song, 'The Devil Went Down To Georgia,' which I wrote, is supposed to be a lighthearted novelty about a fiddling contest between a country boy and the devil and the devil always loses. That is not the case with the Guitar Hero version which comes complete with a horned, guitar-playing devil who battles the player and very often wins. I want any of you parents out there whose children have this game to know that I did not grant these people my permission to pervert my song and am disgusted with the result."
Daniels shared the composer credit on this song with his entire band: Tom Crain, Joel DiGregorio, Fred Edwards, Charles Hayward and Jim Marshall.
Nu metal band Korn laid down a cover
during sessions for their 2019 album The Nothing
. Frontman Jonathan Davis takes on the role of "The Devil" and rapper Yelawolf voices "Johnny." Released in July 2020, three weeks after the death of Charlie Daniels, all proceeds were donated to the Awakening Youth foundation. The charity organization supports children who've lost a parent because of divorce, death, or other circumstances.
A Muppets-style fiddle duel
plays out in a 1980 episode of The Muppet Show
with accompaniment from members of Lubbock Lou and his Jughuggers.