A well-known song by The Charlie Daniels Band off the 1979 album Million Mile Reflections. Since covered by numerous other artists, the single went platinum, topped the country charts, reached number 3 in the US pop charts, and won a Grammy Award.

According to VH1, the inspiration for the song came from a 1925 poem 1 called "The Mountain Whippoorwill" by Stephen Vincent Benet. It tells a story of The Devil himself, behind on his quota of souls, and his attempt to use one of his favourite sins, hubris, to trap a young fiddle player. Satan offers a compelling prize to the boy, bet against his soul (but of course), to see who the best fiddle-player is between the two of them.

Johnny you rosin up your bow, and play your fiddle hard,
cause Hell's broke loose in Georgia and the devil deals the cards.
And if you win, you'll get this shiny fiddle made of gold,
but if you lose, the devil gets your soul.

The Devil and his band of demons go first in the competition. The unscheduled addition of a backing band of demons to the competition goes unchallenged by Johnny. Hubris again, or merely the confidence of the just?

The tune played by the Devil is taken2 from Millie and Vassar Clements' Lonesome Fiddle Blues. There are no lyrics. Charlie Daniels overdubbed his fiddle track seven times to create the wickedly evil sound of the Devil's playing. You don't often hear a fugue played on the fiddle, but that's what this seems to be after Charlie's fiddling with the, er, fiddling.

When the Devil finishes, Johnny admits that Satan's playing was "pretty good" but invites him to take a seat and see "how it's done." The tune then (notionally) played by Johnny incorporates music and lyrics from traditional bluegrass fiddle tunes such as Fire on the Mountain and Granny Does Your Dog Bite. Apparent nonsense lyrics in the chorus such as "Chicken in the bread pan, pickin' out dough" are snippets from classic fiddle tunes.

After Johnny finishes his tune, the Devil bows his head in defeat, and leaves the golden fiddle for Johnny. Personally, I always felt that the devil's tune was a lot better, but then, I'm no fiddle expert.

There's a wonderful Claymation video for this song by Primus, from their Rhinoplasty album. I might have seen it at a Spike and Mike's. It adds a wonderful new dimension to the song.

CST Approved

  1. Copyright on "The Mountain Whippoorwill" renewed 1953 by Rosemary Carr Benet. Otherwise I'd post it.
  2. "Stolen" says Vassar. "Sampled" says Charlie.
The claymation version's band was led by Les Claypool. This version was quite a bit better than the Charlie Daniels Band one, because Satan's tune actually sounded eeevil.

How evil? Eeee-vill. As in the fru-its of the de-vill. Eeee-vill.

Driving through my new home state of Georgia in a red muscle car I just acquired and can barely afford, I found myself wanting to have appropriate music for the whole experience. Slapping on a set of Pep Boys sunglasses and popping in a CD of Southern Rock songs played by various bands such as .38 Special and Lynyrd Skynyrd to my delight included on the CD is this Charlie Daniels tune in D Minor, the perfect thing to be blasting while flying through the backroads just north of Alpharetta.

In Stone Mountain park one of the highlights of their laser show projected onto the side of the mountain is an animation done to this particular tune - one of the first things I saw when I came to the state, so the song holds a particular charm for me.

The song is a brilliant mashup of Southern rock, fiddle music and country, played on drums, bass, piano, guitar and fiddle. However, as great as it is, it's maddening because of some glaring errors.

- The devil went down to Georgia, he was looking for a soul to steal.

Given that Hell is below the Earth, the only way to parse "down to Georgia" means that Satan is heading South - in other words, is a yankee, but then again we knew that, didn't we? Also, he's not stealing a soul, he's unable to do that. It has to be freely traded if the mythology about this is correct.

- He was in a bind 'cos he was way behind and he was willin' to make a deal.

This implies Satan is bound to some kind of quota. This is an intriguing concept, and if it means that Satan requires souls for some compelling purpose, then everything he does is under duress.

- When he came across 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:

According to the University of Georgia the most common hickory is mockernut, which means this is likely taking place in an upland forest.

"I guess you didn't know it, but I'm a fiddle player too.
"And if you'd care to take a dare, I'll make a bet with you.

The idea that the Prince of Darkness saws away at a fiddle is highly amusing, if you think about it. Add in some tobacco spit and a "Git R Done" and you'll see what I mean.

"Now you play a pretty good fiddle, boy, but give the devil his due:/
"I bet a fiddle of gold against your soul, 'cos I think I'm better than you."

The Devil is seen to play this, which makes me curious. I remember reading about some rap artist who wanted a custom pistol made out of gold. Not gold plated, but made of gold. Problem is though that gold, as a soft metal, isn't up to the rigors of being fashioned into a firearm. In the same manner of thinking, how likely is it to work in making an instrument best suited to resonating wood? Is the body made of gold here? The fretboard? Strings? What use could this have acoustically and otherwise? Is Johnny supposed to sell this? 

The boy said: "My name's Johnny and it might be a sin,/

"But I'll take your bet, you're gonna regret, 'cos I'm the best that's ever been."

Doesn't the Devil win here, technically, because it's hubris?

Charlie Daniels starts singing at this point, the song moves from spoken word to actual song.

- Johnny you rosin up your bow and play your fiddle hard/
'Cos 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 makes what transpires all the more depressing.

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.

Wouldn't the rosin melt? As would the gold? Is the bow gold as well?

- And he pulled the bow across his strings and it made an evil hiss.

There's a glorious sound effect of just that that takes place at this point in the song, but it makes you wonder, since the Devil is trying to win this competition, why lead off with something unpleasant to the ear?

- Then a band of demons joined in and it sounded something like this.

At this point a distorted rock guitar plays a four chord vamp, which is augmented by a walking piano line. As mentioned, Charlie Daniels overdubbed to get a cacophony of fiddle notes as a solo about eight bars in. And here is where I really have problems with it. Daniels is no Niccolo Paganini, but surely he could have given Satan a better shot at the competition than what amounts to a dreadful assembly of 32nd notes, hissing drags and a a descending lead line? Frankly, the Devil sucks. I realize that there's a theological component to this, but Satan comes across as a complete fraud with no shot at all.  

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 its done."

After these two spoken word lines, at this point the song moves from a minor mood to a major one. Intriguingly, just as how Satan was supernaturally able to play seven fiddle parts at once on a non-functional instrument, Johnny gets the ability to sing two part harmony, and comes up with a "medley" of country music shout outs.

> Fire on the mountain, run boys, run. (fiddle part) /
The devil's in the house of the risin' sun. (fiddle part) /
Chicken in the bread pan, pickin' out dough.(fiddle part) /
"Granny, does your dog bite?" "No, child, no."(fiddle part)

What follows is Johnny picking up the lead tune, which he was apparently playing at the song's beginning. The track then returns to Daniels speaking over a "train" snare drum part while a bass note rings out on the piano.

> The devil bowed his head because he knew that he'd been beat./
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./
"cause I told you once, you son of a (gun/bitch), I'm the best there's ever been."

Daniels chooses the last line based on whether the song's being played on an album, or the radio. Around children or for public consumption, it's "son of a gun", but chooses far harsher language on record. This is intriguing because it plays into the mythological idea that once you defeat the Devil, he has literally no power over you and you can dare to call him a "son of a bitch". 

I'm of two minds about this part. Part of me wants to commend Johnny for having a ready source of gold, considering just how crap the Devil was - however, all Johnny has to do is lose once and he loses his immortal soul, and there's nothing to say the Devil won't take lessons or at least learn from previous mistakes.

Johnny plays the same fiddle music - which is simpler in execution but played with far more soul and far more elan and is far nicer on the ear, and repeats his winning entry to begin the final part to the song

- And he played fire on the mountain, run boys, run./
The devil's in the house of the risin' sun./
Chicken in the bread pan, now they're pickin' out dough./
"Granny, will your dog bite?" "No, child, no."

Daniels winds down the song with the initial fiddle part Johnny was playing before the Devil showed up, and then winds it down with an appropriate conclusion. A tour de force - but like every other one, one that asks more questions than it answers.

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