It’s Halloween, and what better fiddle tune is there to play on Halloween than Devil Went Down to Georgia?
Ben Alexander joins me today. I think that Ben looks a bit like Charlie Daniels, what do you think?
As a side note, the main theme of Devil Went Down to Georgia comes from a tune written by the great fiddler Vassar Clements called Lonesome Fiddle Blues.
Devil Went Down to Georgia according to Wikipedia
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is a song written and performed by the Charlie Daniels Band and released on their 1979 album Million Mile Reflections.
The song is written in the key of D minor. Vassar Clements originally wrote the basic melody an octave lower, in a tune called “Lonesome Fiddle Blues”. The Charlie Daniels Band moved it up an octave and put words to it. The song’s verses are closer to being spoken rather than sung (i.e. chant or Sprechstimme), and tell the story of a boy named Johnny, in a variant on the classicdeal with the Devil. The performances of Satan and Johnny are played as instrumental bridges. The song was the band’s biggest hit, reaching number three on the Billboard Hot 100. It is featured in the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy, whose choreographer, Patsy Swayze, claims that she set the song’s tempo. “How fast can you dance it?” Daniels asked. “How fast can you play it?” Swayze replied.
The song is a narrative about the Devil, who comes to Georgia to procure souls. He has not obtained nearly as many as usual recently, and is willing to “make a deal” out of desperation. He happens upon a young fiddle player named Johnny, who is minding his own business and playing impressively. The Devil approaches Johnny, and informs him that he, too, plays the fiddle. He then challenges Johnny to a fiddle-playing contest, confident that he is more skillful than the young boy. The terms of the duel are these: should Johnny win, he will be given a fiddle made of solid gold, but should the Devil triumph, he gains Johnny’s soul. Although he fears that taking the Devil’s bet might be sinful, Johnny accepts the terms, proudly telling the Devil that the Devil will regret it as Johnny is “the best that’s ever been.” The duel commences, with the Devil performing a sinister and powerful piece with the backing of demon musicians. Despite this, the Devil is squarely defeated when Johnny takes his turn to perform. The Devil acknowledges being bested and, true to his word, the Devil presents Johnny with a beautiful golden fiddle. Johnny boastfully informs the Devil that he is welcome anytime to come back for a rematch.
The original line in the song “I done told you once, you son of a bitch, I’m the best that’s ever been” was altered to “I done told you once, you son of a gun, I’m the best that’s ever been” for airplay on country music radio.
The narrative is a derivative of the traditional deal with the Devil motif. Charlie Daniels has stated in interviews, “I don’t know where it came from, but it just did. Well, I think I might know where it came from, it may have come from an old poem called ‘The Mountain Whippoorwill’ that Stephen Vincent Benét wrote many, many years ago (1925), that I had in high school. Either that or Jersey.”
Johnny’s song itself is an amalgamation of traditional tunes:
- Fire on the mountain, run boys run– from Fire on the Mountain, a bluegrass fiddle tune dating to at least the early 19th century.
- The devil’s in the house of the rising sun– reference to The House of the Rising Sun, an American folk song
- Chicken in the bread pan pickin’ out dough/Granny does your dog bite? No, child no is an old folk rhyme.
Parodies and covers
- It is parodied by Cledus T. Judd as “Cledus Went Down to Florida,” by a Christian parody group called ApologetiX as “The Devil Went Down to Jordan,” and as “Devil Went Down to Jamaica” by Travis Meyer (the song is frequentlymisattributed to Weird Al Yankovic, and David Allan Coe has also been cited as the performer).
- Alvin and the Chipmunks recorded a cover for the 1993 rerelease of their country album Urban Chipmunk. In this version, Alvin bets his and his brothers’ souls in a harmonica contest.
Steve Ouimette version
The song was featured in the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, arranged by Steve Ouimette in a hard rock style, with the fiddle parts being transcribed to guitar. Steve also included this remix in his “EPIC” album (2010).
Rock/metal band Primus recorded a version of the song, which was released as a claymation music video on their 1998 Rhinoplasty EP and its companion Videoplasty video album, and also re-released on their 2003 EP Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People. The video was directed by Mike Johnson. The same video was used for the Rednex version of the song, released on the DVD The Best of the West in 2002. 
KMC Kru version
Rap/Hip-hop group KMC Kru recorded a version of this song entitled “The Devil Came Up to Michigan”. In this version, the devil challenges a DJ named “The Butcher” to a scratching contest. Up for grabs in this version is “turntable of gold”. True to the original, the Devil is bested and leaves in disgrace with his minions.
A live music video was released in September 1979. It was directed by Corlew & Grimes.
The original version of the song spent fourteen weeks on the Hot Country Singles charts in 1979, peaking at number 1 and holding the position for one week. It spent two weeks at a peak of number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song also holds the RIAA distinction of being the top selling song of all time with a US state in the title of the song.
In June 1998, Epic Records re-released the song to country radio, but accidentally sent out the version in which the line “son of a bitch” was uncensored. This error was quickly corrected, and the song re-entered the country charts at number 62 for the chart dated June 20, 1998. It spent seven weeks on the chart and peaked at number 60.
|U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks||1|
|U.S. Billboard Hot 100||3|
|U.S. Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks||30|
|Canadian RPM Country Tracks||1|
|Canadian Singles Chart||5|
|Australian Kent Music Report||12|
|New Zealand Singles Chart||13|
|U.K. Singles Chart||14|
|Irish Singles Chart||14|
|Dutch Top 40||25|
|U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks||60|
A sequel to the song, titled “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia”, was recorded by Daniels and fiddle player Mark O’Connor in 1993, featuring guest performances by Travis Tritt (as the devil), Marty Stuart (as Johnny) and Johnny Cash as the narrator. In the sequel, the now-adult Johnny is married and has a child. Hoping to take advantage of Johnny’s sinful pride, the Devil challenges him to a rematch. The Devil snatches the Golden Fiddle from Johnny, and demands that he practice with his old fiddle to play against him.
The ending does not state the victor outright, though the music video suggests Johnny won, as does the line “Johnny’s still the best that’s ever been”. In addition, Daniels objected to the Guitar Hero 3 version of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” on the grounds that the devil often wins the contest, which he referred to as “violating the very essence of the song”. This further suggests that Daniels intended the devil to lose in the sequel as well.
The song can be found on Mark O’Connor’s album, Heroes.