The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” represents more than a welcome change of pace on classic rock radio. It’s also a modern answer to old folk tales and to the fiddle tunes that predate commercial recordings. These strong historic roots resounded with a broad audience, making the 1979 hit a globally-known benchmark for contemporary country music and Southern rock.
Vassar Clements’ Prequel
Clements, the fiddle player popularized by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, introduced the song’s predecessor, “Lonesome Fiddle Blues,” on his 1975 self-titled LP. Daniels, a session player on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and other seminal recordings from the time period, played guitar on the album.
When Daniels and his keyboardist Joel DiGregorio reworked the song for their 1979 album Million Mile Reflections, they upped Clements’ d-minor instrumental an octave.
A Faustian Tale
Lyrically, Daniels tells a story about the Devil trying to dupe a country boy out of his soul.
The protagonist represents more than the Biblical Satan in this scenario, doubling as a trickster from an old Appalachian folk tale. As for his gathering of souls, that trope can be likened to blues musician Robert Johnson’s long-rumored trip to the crossroads and a to couple of short stories listeners probably encountered in high school– Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” and Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Further, Daniels references Benet’s old poem “The Mountain Whippoorwill” — a celebration of historic fiddling contests — with the declaration that Hell’s broke loose in Georgia.
Unfortunately for the Devil, the young man in this scenario, identified simply as Johnny, didn’t have idle hands when faced with such a high-stakes challenge. The Devil and his band proved to be stiff competition, introducing mountain folks to rock ‘n’ roll. Yet his worldly sounds were no match for old fiddle tunes. Per the song’s lyrics, the young man tore through “Fire on the Mountain,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “Granny Does Your Dog Bite?” and “Ida Red.” By the contest’s end, not even the Devil could lie his way around the obvious– Johnny won that golden fiddle, fair and square.
A Crossover Hit
The song spent a total of 14 weeks on the Billboard Hot Country Singles charts, including one week at number one. It also made a splash in the pop and rock worlds, peaking at third on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
A year later, when the film Urban Cowboy introduced a broader audience to country music, the original album version — the one that calls Satan an S.O.B. — made it into the film and onto its influential soundtrack. Through its initial success, Urban Cowboy renewal and cross-genre airplay, the song went platinum by 1989.
Sustained popularity made the song cover material for the rock band Primus, with bassist Les Claypool making that band of demons sound fiercer than ever. It also stayed relevant enough to make it into one of the Guitar Hero video games, with the fiddle parts played on electric guitar by Steve Ouimette.
A Lesser-Known Sequel
In 1993, fiddler Mark O’Connor shared what happened when the devil took up Johnny’s offer for a rematch with “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia” and its music video.
O’Connor, playing the familiar tune as a duet with Daniels, pulled out all stops with guest vocalists. Filling Daniels’ storyteller role is none other than Johnny Cash. Marty Stuart plays a grown-up version of Johnny– a little out of practice, but still sure of his God-given talent. Rounding out the cast is Travis Tritt, hogging all the fun as the Devil. Although the song doesn’t conclusively state if Johnny was still “the best there’s ever been,” we at least know that he’s giving his adversary a pretty thorough lashing by video’s end.
The sequel hardly tore up the country charts, and it’s not one of its guest stars’ biggest hits, yet it serves the same worthwhile purpose as the original — reintroducing folk tales and fiddle tunes to modern America.