(thanks, TL Gray)
Being a native Georgian and one from the Appalachian region, I remember when this song came out. I was eight years old and it literally scared the be-Jesus out of me thinking the Devil might be somewhere near ready to steal my soul. However, with my insatiable love for stories and storytelling, I was enraptured by the song. No matter what I was doing or where I was, I’d stop and give it my full attention, allowing my imagination to take me away to watch the scene play out in full Technicolor. I don’t know about you, but I dream and imagine in brilliant hues, not fifty shades of gray.
"The Devil Went Down to Georgia" was written by Charlie Daniels and featured on the Charlie Daniels Band's 1979 Million Mile Reflections
LP. The tune starts out with the very familiar, fast-paced, fiddle-playing music of the traditional square dance common in the Appalachian Mountains. Written in Sprechstimme
, which is German for "spoken voice," lead singer Charlie Daniels begins this Faustian tale about a boy named Johnny. Faust, by the way, was a popular 16th Century German scholar who was known to have made a deal with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly possessions, and the prime subject of a Rembrandt painting.
The song opens with, “The Devil went down to Georgia, he was looking for a soul to steal. He was in a bind, ‘cause he was way behind, and he was willin’ to make a deal
.” My first question was, “Way behind on what? Collecting souls?” My greatest question was, “What the heck is he doing in Georgia?” To a young kid having had nightmares for months after watching The Exorcist
, the Devil was no simple matter, and I surely didn’t like the idea he was roaming around Georgia. The story moves on.
“When he came upon this young man sawin’ on a fiddle and playin’ it hot. And the devil jumped upon a hickory stump and said, ‘Boy, let me tell you what
.'” I’ll tell you
what… if the Devil just popped out of nowhere and started talking to me
, I doubt he would have gotten three words out before I was out of there
. We southern folk from the Appalachia don’t hang around when devils show up …well, at least not this
Appalachian. Another tidbit about this song is this: It was featured in the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy
, and choreographer Pasty Swayze (mother of Dirty Dancing
's Patrick) is known to have set the fast tempo. And so the story goes on.
Amicolola Falls trail base
(thanks, TL Gray)
“I bet you didn’t know it, but I’m a fiddle player too
…” says the Devil in the song. Actually, it is common knowledge that Lucifer, the fallen archangel who through his own vanity was cast out of heaven and became known as the Devil, was the chief music minister in Heaven. I bet he could play just about anything. The Devil continues, “And if you care to take a dare, I’ll make a bet with you. Now, you play a pretty good fiddle, boy, but give the Devil his due
…” This phrase can be found in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part 1
– “Constable: I will cap that proverb with 'There is flattery in friendship.' Orleans: And I will take up that with 'Give the devil his due.'" It means, “pay up what you owe” or “give praise to someone for something they can do.” I’m assuming the Devil is giving praise to Johnny with that silver tongue of his. “I bet a fiddle of gold against your soul, ‘cause I think I’m better than you
.” Well, nobody ever said the Devil was smart. He’s still stuck on that whole vanity thing, thinking he’s better than everybody else. But he obviously hasn’t hung out in the Appalachian Mountains very much, because those rednecks don’t usually take too kindly to threats. Though the whole state of Georgia is right in the middle of the Bible Belt, those southern boys often had a tendency to take bets and run moonshine during Prohibition. “The boy said, ‘Well, my name’s Johnny, and it might be a sin, but I’ll take your be and you’re gonna regret it, ‘cause I’m the best that’s ever been
.” I can’t help but shake my head, ‘cause I already know how this is going to turn out.
The tempo picks up at the chorus, which is made up of four very distinct sounds. The first part is “Fire on the Mountain, run boy run
,” which is an old Appalachia folk song. The next part is “The Devil’s in the house of the rising sun
," which is a very popular American folk song. The whole chorus is set to a common square dance theme, but with a very fast tempo. The last two parts are a mix of Appalachia folk song and a popular square dance tune, “Chicken’s in the bread pan picking out dough. Granny, does your dog bite? No, child no.
” The original artists of those popular tunes are unknown, but common in this whole southern region. For the “House of the Rising Sun,” the earliest known recording was by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster of Vocolion Records in 1934.
“Johnny, you rosin up your bow and you play your fiddle hard. ‘Cause hell’s broke loose in Georgia and the Devil deals the cards. And if you win you get this shiny fiddle made of gold. But, if you lose the Devil gets your soul
.” This is where we have an interlude and then enter into the second part of the story.
“The Devil opened up his case and he said, ‘I’ll start this show.’ And fire flew from his fingertips as he rosined up his bow. And he pulled the bow across the strings and it made a evil hiss. Then a band of demons joined in and it sounded something like this
.” Again… this
Appalachian would have been long, long gone. But the way Charlie Daniels tells this story, combined with the foot-stomping tempo, keeps a listener glued to the end.
The Devil plays first and he does so with a harsh rock, bluesy–type theme, accompanied by a legion of demons. It’s soulful and dark and makes me think of nails scratching across a chalkboard. “When the Devil finished Johnny said, ‘Well, you’re pretty good, ‘ol son. But sit down in that chair right there and let me show you how it’s done
.” The song then jumps back into the chorus as Johnny plays, but he spiffs it up a bit and rocks the house. It gave me chill bumps.
And now for the glory, glory, hallelujah! conclusion. “The Devil bowed his head, because he knew that he’d been beat. And he laid that golden fiddle on the ground at Johnny’s feet. Johnny said, ‘Devil, just come on back if you ever want to try again. I done told you once, you son of a bitch, I’m the best that’s ever been
.” This controversial verse had to be changed to “son of a gun” for the radio release. Censors had no problem with the Devil being in Georgia to do a little gambling of souls, but cursing was out of the question. In June of 1988, Epic Records re-released "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," but accidentally (uh-huh) sent the uncensored version, which was quickly replaced.
Now, if you think this is the end of the story and the Devil went on his merry way and left ol’ Johnny alone, well, you don’t know much about southern folk tales. There was a sequel released in 1993 by Daniels and Mark O’ Connor, featuring Travis Tritt, Marty Stuart, and the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash, called, “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia.” But you’re just going to have to listen to that song yourself to see if the Devil finally gets his due or gets beat once more.
As an author, I love a good story. As a natural-born Appalachian, I love a story where the Devil loses. It can’t get better than that.
~ T.L. Gray
T.L. Gray is a best-selling published author, literary agent, editor, blogger, and contributing writer to various print and online magazines. When this active outdoor enthusiast isn’t hiking down some wild, adventurous, backwoods trail, or cooking gourmet food, she is listening to an eclectic assortment of music or playing her acoustic guitar. For more information visit her Facebook Page at AuthorTLGray
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