The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
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Robert Johnson, as the legend goes, met a man at a crossroads one night in Mississippi. There the stranger tuned Johnson’s guitar, returned it to him, and in doing so granted the aspiring young bluesman immortality—in art if not in life. Johnson went on to become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, but he never lived to see it. He died in 1938 at the age of 27, leaving behind a handful of recordings that would make him posthumously famous. The mysterious figure who tuned Johnson’s guitar was never identified. But come on. We all know it was Satan.
Johnson’s story is just one example of the Faustian legend, one of the most enduring in Western culture. It predates Goethe’s 1808 play Faust—after which it became retroactively known—by centuries. It’s as much an archetype as a tale. Throughout all its incarnations, the central premise is simple and striking: Make a deal with the Devil, and you may be rewarded in the short term. But eventually you will lose that thing most precious to anyone: your soul.
Charlie Daniels knows this well. His Grammy-winning, multimillion-selling, 1979 country-rock crossover hit, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” became his biggest triumph, and it remains one of the most recognizable songs of all time in any genre. Like the Faust legend it draws from, the song has become archetypal. But “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” breaks from that cautionary Faust-ian tale in a brazen, blasphemous way: Instead of once again outwitting sinful mankind, Satan gets his ass handed to him.
I knew of Daniels long before “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” My mom moved my family from Connecticut to Florida in the mid-’70s, and she immediately took to Southern rock, which was blasted in my living room day and night. Daniels had always been a staple of the Southern rock scene. After playing on records by everyone from Bob Dylan to Leonard Cohen, he established his Dixie credentials in the early ’70s by dishing up some occasional fiddle—the instrument that would become his trademark—for South Carolina’s The Marshall Tucker Band.
The Charlie Daniels Band’s breakthrough came in 1975 with “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” a self-explanatory song that my mom played about million times on our living room stereo. To this day I still have no idea why my mom—born and bred in New England—took a shine to that kind of good-ol’-boy rabblerousing, other than the fact that my family is more backwoods than blue-blooded. My mom latched onto Southern culture with a passion, but on paper, she might have been just another carpetbagger.
In “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” so is Satan. Only instead of a carpetbag, he carries a fiddle case. After a rousing, raucous intro that sinks into a sinister simmer, the song lets loose its opening line—a couplet that drips acidic disgust, a sneering condemnation of every Northerner who ever dared drop below the Mason-Dixon Line in order to appropriate, patronize, or otherwise weasel their way into the South. “The Devil went down to Georgia / He was looking for a soul to steal,” sings Daniels, and he does so with the ingrained distaste for the conniving Yankee that was once the white Southerner’s birthright. Not that some people don’t still feel that way. As the song lays out its very simple premise—the Devil bets a hotshot fiddler named Johnny a golden fiddle against his soul that he can’t best him in a fiddling contest—it becomes clear that Johnny’s soul is symbolic of something more: It’s the soul of the South itself Johnny is playing for. Or at least the mythologized essence of the South that some feel the Civil War was truly all about. Daniels’ choice of preposition says it all. The Devil didn’t go up to Georgia, as if from hell; he went down to Georgia, as if from the Union.
It’s a complicated issue, and this is hardly the place to tackle it. But I will say this: Growing up a Yankee in South, I was warned against racism at an early age. I once saw my grandfather smack my full-grown uncle in the mouth for saying the N-word in front of him. My family was working-class and leaned slightly to the right, but racism seemed beyond class and politics to them. But as for my mom’s shit-kicking, redneck friends back in the ’70s, all I could see was how their eyes lit up and the Southern Comfort flowed when Daniels—or any artist that extolled the pride of the South, like Hank Williams Jr., whom Daniels has recorded with—came on the stereo.
“The Devil Went Down To Georgia” isn’t just a catchy song with stomping rhythm, sizzling fiddle licks, and the kind of spoken-sung lyrics that are great fun for a 7-year-old to memorize (even a kid like me who preferred Queen). The song is an anthem. It thumbs its nose at the Faust legend by letting Johnny beat the Devil at his own game, after which a crushed Mephistopheles slinks away to whatever flaming shithole that spit him up. Apparently no one ever told Daniels hubris can sometimes be a bad thing. Even in his 1993 sequel, “The Devil Comes Back To Georgia”—which sadly features Johnny Cash, yet to enjoy his American Recordings comeback, in the role of the narrator—Johnny doesn’t lose.
More than just an anthem, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” is an allegory. Behind its Southern-fried swagger is a veiled metaphor for the South-will-rise-again mentality. In that regard it might as well be a rewrite of Daniels’ earlier, less successful song, “The South Will Rise Again,” only repackaged for broader marketability. At the same time it was a Dixie dog whistle for the good ol’ boys back home. “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” had such universal appeal, it was picked for the soundtrack to the 1980 John Travolta vehicle Urban Cowboy, which sought to do the same thing to country music that Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever had done to disco three years earlier: help mainstream a previously marginalized genre. In hopes of turning a profit, of course, but still. And at that, it succeeded. Urban Cowboy helped usher in a decade of slick, pop-friendly country, an era that continues to this day. The carpetbaggers never had it so good.
Since “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” thrust him into the spotlight, Daniels has shown himself to be an increasingly paranoid right-wing creep. In January of 2013—presciently enough, months before his fellow Southern celebrities Paula Deen and Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson would come under fire for racist comments—Daniels felt the need to write an article for the conservative website CNSNews.com titled “Don’t Confuse My Heartfelt Convictions With Racism.” Slightly less catchy than “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” to be sure. In the article, Daniels vows that his volley of online hatred he’s aimed at Barack Obama since his he became president has nothing to do with Obama’s skin color. He then goes down the conspiracy-theory rabbit-hole, ending the article with a militia-like fantasy about the Federal government declaring martial law against patriotic Americans and invading its own soil (after having legislated away all the patriots’ guns, naturally). Daniels’ most recent single is the 2012 call to conservative action, “Take Back The USA”; in it he warns, “It’s time to hit our knees and pray” because “God’s getting less while the Devil’s getting more.” Daniels, of all people, ought to know.