There’s no denying what you’re listening to when that fiddle begins. “The Devil Went to Down to Georgia” is what made The Charlie Daniels Band the country music success that it’s known for today.
Initially, the outlaw country band created the quintessential tune as a way to incorporate the fiddle into more of their music. Little did they know that their decision to utilize the instrument would ultimately contribute to the worldwide success the band would garner.
41-years ago, in 1979, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” became Daniels’ first No. 1 hit. It would serve as the debut single from Daniels’ Million Mile Reflections album. The critically acclaimed album officially later went double platinum with over 2 million albums sold back in 1986.
Ironically, the band’s most successful tune was added to the record at the last minute. Frontman Charlie Daniels and five other writers wrote the track.
“We had gone in and rehearsed, written and recorded the music for our Million Mile Reflections album, and all of a sudden we said, ‘We don’t have a fiddle song,'” Daniels recalled to Songfacts. “I don’t know why we didn’t discover that, but we went out, and we took a couple of days’ break from the recording studio, went into a rehearsal studio, and I just had this idea: ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia.'”
The foot-stompin’, upbeat song plays on the long-standing tale that originated in the Appalachian mountains and has continued to be passed down throughout generations. The song describes a young boy named Johnny, who wagers a deal with the Devil. Johnny bets his soul for a chance to win a golden fiddle. As the song goes, Satan dares the adolescent boy to face off with him in a fiddling contest, telling him, “I’ll bet a fiddle of gold against your soul, ’cause I think I’m better than you.”
Charlie Daniels’ Story Behind the Country Song We All Know
“I don’t know where it came from, but it just did,” Daniels recalled. “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 Benet wrote many, many years ago, that I had in high school. He didn’t use that line, but I started playing, and the band started playing, and first thing you know we had it down.”
In addition to the uptempo fiddle, the song’s draw comes from Daniels’ ability to deliver the story quite distinctively. While the fiddle may catch your ear at first, Daniels’ storytelling is what captures you. With the addition of two very different fiddle solos, he symbolically represents the battle between Satan and Johnny. As a result, he’s able to tell the tale with his voice as well as his musicianship.
“The Devil’s just blowing smoke,” Daniels explained. “If you listen to that, there’s just a bunch of noise. There’s no melody to it, there’s no nothing. It’s just a bunch of noise. Just confusion and stuff. And of course, Johnny’s saying something. You can’t beat the Devil without the Lord. I didn’t have that in the song, but I should have.”