26 Aug 2016, 15:23

The Devil Went Down To Georgia - a deep read


Let’s do something different, and talk about decent country music and Satan.

Absolutely everyone has heard “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, by the Charlie Daniels Band. It’s pretty good, and like most songs with a plot, it’s pretty simple. The devil is “running short”, needs a soul, and comes across Johnny, “sawing on a fiddle and playing it hot”. He proposes to bet Johnny a golden fiddle, against his soul, that the devil can beat him in a fiddling contest.

At this point it’s probably a good idea to mention that a fiddle made of gold would be absolutely useless, except maybe to look at (it is “shiny”, in the telling).

In response, “The boy said, ‘my name’s Johnny, and it might be a sin - but I’ll take your bet; you’re gonna regret - cuz’ I’m the best that’s ever been.’”

Worth noting is that in literature, one never makes a bet with the devil. As we see in Job, when being tempted, “all that [we] have is in [his] power” - there is simply no winning. One can make a pact with the devil, i.e. a trade, but one never bets - what would be the point of betting when material conditions are presupposed to be under his control? Why isn’t Johnny struck with boils on his fingers as he rosins up his bow, or attacked by whomever the modern equivalent is of the Sabeans (in the interest of conservation of narrative, probably still Sabeans)?

Disregarding this for the moment - the devil starts playing his instrument.

At this point it’s probably a good idea to mention that the devil is clearly playing disco (note that the song came out in 1979).

Johnny, having heard this, thinks it is no great act to follow - he lays down his effort, with the melody being lead with actual fiddle, rather than an electric guitar. The devil “knew that he’d been beat”, and gives Johnny the golden fiddle. Johnny taunts him on his way out, claiming to be “the best that’s ever been”.

What actually happened here?

The devil knows exactly how good Johnny is; he saw him play. Nonetheless, the devil offers Johnny a functionally useless, but superficially attractive, prize - if only Johnny would prove his mettle against the entire manifestation of earthly triumph in exchange for spiritual ruin. Johnny knows it’s a sin, but he is proud enough that it doesn’t matter - he takes the bet. The devil, despite being able to do whatever he wants to Johnny, “loses”, and in his moment of triumph, Johnny claims to be, essentially, the God of fiddling.

In other words - this month, the devil met his quota.