'The Devil Went Down To Georgia' Song: Meaning And Trivia You Didn't Know
Charlie Daniels and John Travolta on the set of 'Urban Cowboy.' Source: charliedaniels.com
Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is one of the great story songs, with lyrics that tell of a fiddler's confrontation with Satan. The tune was a hit with country fans and a mainstream audience, boosted by its inclusion in Urban Cowboy. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” peaked at number three on Billboard charts but changed the face of it in one fell twang. Over the years, the famous song has been analyzed and dissected until the cows come home.
Fiddling In His Bones
The late Charlie Daniels, who died in July 2020, grew up fiddling. That foundation became vital to him and his fans. “Fiddle songs were important to me and to our fans," he told the Wall Street Journal. "They were a bridge from hard rock to our bluegrass roots.”
The future country superstar soon picked up a Gibson electric guitar and started a rock’n’roll band. After finding some success as a rock musician, he brought the fiddle back. “I began recording my own songs and incorporating a little bit of everything. When we began playing hard rock, I added the fiddle back in.”
Charlie Daniels Played With Bob Dylan
Though he's known for the blistering country-rock sound of "The Devil Went Down To Georgia," Charlie Daniels had a diverse list of credits from his early days. In fact, Daniels played on Bob Dylan's landmark 1969 album Nashville Skyline. He'd originally been booked as a fill-in for a studio session when a guitarist couldn't make the gig. Daniels' playing impressed Dylan immediately.
“I was packing my gear up to leave,” Daniels recalled for CMT. “Dylan asked [producer Bob] Johnston, ‘Where’s he going?’ He said, ‘He’s leaving. I got another guitar player coming in.’ And Dylan said, ‘I don’t want another guitar player. I want him.’ It’s just unbelievable, I don’t know, almost surreal.”
Daniels can be heard on Nashville Skyline, and the two 1970 albums that followed, Self-Portrait and New Morning.
During his days as a session musician, Daniels played guitar, bass, mandolin and fiddle as needed -- and became a sort of gopher in the industry. One of his responsibilities was personally delivering master tapes Dylan recorded in Nashville to the record company in New York City.
Charlie Daniels Toured With Leonard Cohen
One of Daniels' most unusual jobs was playing with Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet-singer/songwriter.
"When Bob Johnston brought Leonard Cohen to Nashville to record an album, I have to admit that I knew very little about him and was completely unfamiliar with his music," Daniels recalled in his memoir Never Look At The Empty Seats. "Leonard was a totally different kind of artist than any I had ever worked with. His music was sensitive and haunting, and the imagery of his lyrics was abstract and poetic, like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. ... When I first heard 'Bird on the Wire,' I didn't know what to think. Here was a truly unique artist, and his songs were so delicate that one out-of-place guitar lick could bend it out of shape. When you worked with Leonard, you had to listen closely and get in sync with what he was trying to convey. You had to interpret it in the same musical frame he was operating in. Sometimes it only called for a well-placed note or two, sparse but meaningful. I know that sounds philosophical and stilted, but so was Leonard's music. You needed to be in a certain frame of mind, and it was a challenging but satisfying experience."
Following the release of the album, Songs From A Room (1969), Cohen invited Daniels to join him on tour. "I was asked to be part of the backup band that would be called The Army. It was a different kind of band, mostly acoustical instruments with no drums. We needed to surround Leonard with delicate, genteel sounds. For a bang, slam, redline graduate of thirteen years of honky-tonk and rock and roll, it would be a learning experience."
Charlie Daniels Missed Out On Being A Beatle
One more story from Daniels' eventful career as a session musician. This one also comes from his memoir Never Look at the Empty Seats. It seems one day in New York, Daniels got the call to come play an impromptu session with Dylan and George Harrison:
"The four of us spent a relaxed and pleasant day just doing whatever song Dylan felt like doing. We cut old songs and new songs, none of which could be released by Columbia Records because George Harrison didn't have current working papers. It was the neatest day and one of my all-time-favorite musical memories. Dylan even took requests that day. You could just name one of his songs, and he'd go into it."
Then things got a little surreal, or more surreal, for a music fan like Daniels.
"George was a really nice little guy, friendly and conversational," he recalled. "It was right after Paul McCartney left the band, and he jokingly asked in his thick Liverpudlian accent, 'Do you want to be a Beatle?' What do you think?"
Never Forget The Fiddle
As a session and touring musician, Daniels played various instruments, but it's his violin stylings he became famous for, owing in part to the subject matter of "The Devil Went Down To Georgia." But Daniels' particular style of playing the fiddle also set his sound apart. “My style of fiddle playing worked perfectly there. When I drew my bow, I tended to press down hard on the strings. That made the fiddle sound grittier. Once I saw the audience response, I wrote more songs with the fiddle in mind.”
The Story Was Inspired By A 1925 Poem
Many people have claimed that one of Vassar Clements’s songs was the inspiration for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” According to Daniels, that isn’t the case, “The song’s inspiration had nothing to do with Vassar Clements’s 'Lonesome Fiddle Blues,'" Daniels told the Wall Street Journal. "The music for 'Devil' was all stuff we came up with totally on our own. Vassar is one of my favorite fiddle players, but there was no correlation between the two songs.”
The true root of the song came from way back, “The inspiration for my lyric was Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1925 poem, 'The Mountain Whippoorwill.' I first read the poem in high school and it stuck with me.”
A Fiddling Contest With High Stakes
Channeling his inner poet and his life story, Daniels came up with a contest. "Fired up by Benét’s poem, I wrote a lyric about a kid named Johnny who was a great fiddler. But I needed something more exciting than an ordinary contest. The stakes had to be higher.
"So I had the Devil go down to Georgia to challenge Johnny. If Johnny won, he’d get the Devil’s gold fiddle. But if he lost, the Devil would get his soul. Johnny accepts the challenge.”
He chose Georgia as the setting for how it sounds, “I love the way 'Georgia' sounds. It’s so poetic. It wouldn’t be the same if it were 'The Devil Went Down to New Hampshire, New York or Tennessee.'”
Johnny Or Charlie
The boy in the song is named Johnny but his story certainly sounds a lot like Charlie's. The famous chorus: “Fire on the mountain, run boys run /the Devil’s in the house of the rising sun / Chicken in the bread pan pickin’ out dough / ‘Granny does your dog bite?’ ‘No, child, no.’” came from his childhood, “Those are old square-dance refrains. I used to play square dances when I started out in North Carolina."
Devil In The Board
There are two fiddle solos in the song. One for Johnny and one for the Devil. The sound of the Devil’s solo came from Daniels and his genius sound engineer, Paul Grupp:
“For the Devil’s solo, I played all kinds of junk to illustrate his soullessness. I made the fiddle solo all fury and noise, without melody or poetry. After I finished, Paul, our engineer, had me put on headphones and overdub six more fiddle tracks to illustrate the Devil’s 'band of demons.' On one of those tracks, I used an eight-string fiddle, which is strung like a mandolin, with two strings in place of one. Then Paul and John brought all seven tracks together as one cohesive solo. When they mixed it, the Devil’s solo had a wider, angry sound. I was amazed. I had never worked like that before in the studio.”
The evil devilish hiss you hear was Joel “Taz” DiGregorio’s idea. The sound was made “by running a guitar pick across the strings of the studio’s acoustic piano.
A Hat Tip From The Greatest
Once “The Devil Went To Georgia” went big, Daniels heard from one of his idols, classical violinist Itzhak Perlman. "Mr. Perlman said, 'I just want you to know that my children and myself are fans of yours,' Daniels told the Wall Street Journal. "He finished by saying, “I’d like to do something with you sometime.
"When I got off the phone, I stood there as if someone had hit me in the face with a cold mullet. I couldn’t fathom how he knew who I was. And if he did, I just assumed he would have said to himself, 'My gosh, listen to this guy. He’s horrible.' ... As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Perlman is the best fiddle player there is.”
There's A Sequel To 'The Devil Went Down To Georgia'
In 1993, Daniels got together with some superstars for a sequel to "The Devil Went Down To Georgia." The follow-up is entitled "The Devil Comes Back To Georgia," and it features Travis Tritt as the Devil, Marty Stuart as Johnny," and Johnny Cash as the narrator. What the hell does that sound like? Listen for yourself:
"The Devil Comes Back To Georgia" was included on Mark O'Connor's album Heroes.
Daniels Dislikes The Way His Song Was Used In 'Guitar Hero III'
The 2007 console video game Guitar Hero III: Legends Of Rock brought Charlie Daniels' signature tune to a younger generation, which you'd think would please its creator. The song comes at the end of the game, in a battle between the player and the Devil himself. Since it's a game, the player has to compete with the Devil -- and might not win. That rubbed Daniels the wrong way -- in fact, he was disturbed by the imagery featured in the game as well. He voiced his opinion on his blog (archived):
"[The song] 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 did not grant these people my permission to pervert my song and am disgusted with the result. Unfortunately I lost the publishing rights on the song many years ago in a settlement with a former partner and the license to Guitar Hero was granted by the company who now owns the publishing. I would never grant permission for some company to create a video game version of a song I wrote in which the devil wins a contest and ... This game looks innocent enough but if you have a child who is playing it, take the time to sit with him or her while they're playing along and take a serious look at the images on the screen. You may be surprised at the world they're being exposed to."
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