A well-known song by The Charlie Daniels Band off the 1979 album Million Mile Reflections. Since covered by numerous other artists, the single went platinum, topped the country charts, reached number 3 in the US pop charts, and won a Grammy Award.

According to VH1, the inspiration for the song came from a 1925 poem 1 called "The Mountain Whippoorwill" by Stephen Vincent Benet. It tells a story of The Devil himself, behind on his quota of souls, and his attempt to use one of his favourite sins, hubris, to trap a young fiddle player. Satan offers a compelling prize to the boy, bet against his soul (but of course), to see who the best fiddle-player is between the two of them.

Johnny you rosin up your bow, and play your fiddle hard,
cause Hell's broke loose in Georgia and the devil deals the cards.
And if you win, you'll get this shiny fiddle made of gold,
but if you lose, the devil gets your soul.

The Devil and his band of demons go first in the competition. The unscheduled addition of a backing band of demons to the competition goes unchallenged by Johnny. Hubris again, or merely the confidence of the just?

The tune played by the Devil is taken2 from Millie and Vassar Clements' Lonesome Fiddle Blues. There are no lyrics. Charlie Daniels overdubbed his fiddle track seven times to create the wickedly evil sound of the Devil's playing. You don't often hear a fugue played on the fiddle, but that's what this seems to be after Charlie's fiddling with the, er, fiddling.

When the Devil finishes, Johnny admits that Satan's playing was "pretty good" but invites him to take a seat and see "how it's done." The tune then (notionally) played by Johnny incorporates music and lyrics from traditional bluegrass fiddle tunes such as Fire on the Mountain and Granny Does Your Dog Bite. Apparent nonsense lyrics in the chorus such as "Chicken in the bread pan, pickin' out dough" are snippets from classic fiddle tunes.

After Johnny finishes his tune, the Devil bows his head in defeat, and leaves the golden fiddle for Johnny. Personally, I always felt that the devil's tune was a lot better, but then, I'm no fiddle expert.

There's a wonderful Claymation video for this song by Primus, from their Rhinoplasty album. I might have seen it at a Spike and Mike's. It adds a wonderful new dimension to the song.

CST Approved

  1. Copyright on "The Mountain Whippoorwill" renewed 1953 by Rosemary Carr Benet. Otherwise I'd post it.
  2. "Stolen" says Vassar. "Sampled" says Charlie.
The claymation version's band was led by Les Claypool. This version was quite a bit better than the Charlie Daniels Band one, because Satan's tune actually sounded eeevil.

How evil? Eeee-vill. As in the fru-its of the de-vill. Eeee-vill.

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