The song is written in the key of D minor. Vassar Clements originally wrote the melody an octave lower, in a tune called "Lonesome Fiddle Blues". Charlie Daniels Band moved it up an octave and put words to it. The song's verses are closer to being spoken rather than sung (i.e. chant or Sprechstimme), and tell the story of a boy named Johnny, who one day is challenged by the devil to a battle of fiddle-playing: If Johnny triumphs, he claims a golden fiddle; losing the battle will forfeit his soul. The performances of Satan and Johnny are played as instrumental bridges.
The narrative is a derivative of the traditional "pact with the Devil" motif. Charlie Daniels has stated in interviews, "I don’t know where it came from, but it just did. 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 Benét wrote many, many years ago, that I had in high school."
The version that appeared on Million Mile Reflections includes the line "I done told you once, you son of a bitch, I'm the best that's ever been", but the version played by many radio stations had the words "son of a gun" instead. The latter version, ostensibly a concession to family-friendly interests, eventually became the more widely used version of the song. A sequel to the song, titled "The Devil Came Back to Georgia," was recorded by Daniels and fiddle player Mark O'Connor in 1993, featuring guest performances by Travis Tritt (as the devil), Marty Stuart (as Johnny) and Johnny Cash. In the sequel, Johnny has grown into a man, who is married and has a child. Hoping to take advantage of Johnny's sinful pride, the Devil challenges him to a rematch. The Devil snatches the Golden Fiddle from Johnny, and demands that he practice with his old fiddle to play against him. The ending does not state the victor outright, though the music video suggests Johnny won, as does the line "Johnny's still the best that's ever been". The song can be found on Mark O'Connor's album, Heroes.
The song has been covered many times throughout the years, including versions by Jerry Reed, Blues Traveler, Primus, Emerson Drive, Bomshel, The Levellers, Those Darn Accordions, Josh Zuckerman, Rednex, Jim Davidson, Kevin Fowler, HLAH and Billy Hill and the Hillbillies.
There is a Spanish version of the song, "El Diablo bajó a Georgia" by Caballo Dorado. Toy Dolls did their version of "The Devil Went Down to Scunthorpe" in their 1997 album One More Megabyte with the fiddles exchanged for guitars. The German musician Lonzo Westphal released a song named "Der Zaubergeiger (Der Teufel kam nach Eppendorf)" (in English: "The magic fiddler (The Devil Went Down to Eppendorf)") in 1980 on his album Heftig. The story stays the same as in the original tune, with two exceptions: it's set to Hamburg-Eppendorf, and Johnny doesn't have a name in Westphals version. Lonzo himself was often called Der Teufelsgeiger (The devil's fiddler) at the times of his major success. On the Alabama 3 album Power in the Blood, there is a song called "The Devil Went Down to Ibiza", a dark song about the dangers of drug-taking in dance culture. The Clamdiggers released a song titled "The Devil Went Down to Newport", which relates the story of a surfing contest with the Devil. This song was covered in 1996 by Mono Puff.
Filk singer and fiddler Heather Alexander does a song called "Faerie Queen" which she describes as her response as a Celtic fiddle player to the many requests she gets to play "The Devil Went Down to Georgia". In this variation, a fiddler girl plays off against the Faerie Queen to win back her husband-to-be from the Faerie Queen's spell. The song was parodied in Travis Meyer's "The Devil Went to Jamaica" (often mis-credited to David Allen Coe or "Weird Al" Yankovic). In this version, The Devil and Johnny engage in a marijuana-smoking contest, with the Devil betting $1 million against Johnny's marijuana.
Alvin and The Chipmunks recorded their own version of the song with the same name. In this version, the devil challenges Alvin to a harmonica playing contest with the souls of himself and his brothers Simon and Theodore at stake, to which Alvin characteristically absentmindedly accepts. Another parody of the song, titled "Cledus Went Down to Florida," was recorded by country music parodist Cledus T. Judd. Judd's parody can be found on his 1996 album I Stoled This Record. The 2002 ApologetiX album Grace Period contained "The Devil Went Down to Jordan," which recounts the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.
Camper Van Beethoven's third album, titled "Camper Van Beethoven," contains a song called "We Love You" which alludes to the original Charlie Daniels song. The band travels down to Georgia "lookin' for some fun," but instead they meet up with the Devil, who is armed "with a fiddle and a gun." The Devil boasts that he is the baddest fiddler in the land, proves it (with a musical bridge), and is then allowed to join the band.
In Stephen Lynch's song "Beelz", the Devil says "Fuck Charlie Daniels, I don't care if he can fiddle" and then later in the song states "I would never be caught dead in Georgia".
In the Futurama episode "Hell is Other Robots", Leela accepts the Robot Devil's challenge to a fiddle contest with a golden fiddle to win Bender's soul. Fry points out that it would sound bad and that it would be really heavy, and the Robot Devil admits it's only for show. If they lost, the Robot Devil would give them only a smaller fiddle, made of silver, and kill Fry.
In the Adult Swim series Squidbillies Christmas special, Early tells Santa the last verse of the song. Also in the episode "Mephistopheles Traveled Below to a Southern State Whose Motto Is 'Wisdom, Justice and Moderation'" Rusty sells his soul to the devil for guitar playing skills. The title of the episode is also a reference to the song.
An animated film version of the song by Primus, using stop-motion animation with puppets, was made by Mike Johnson in 1996.
The Urbz has a mini-game called Soul Music. The dialogue (upon first playing the game) references the song. A hard rock/metal cover by Steve Ouimette appears in the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, of which Daniels did not approve. It appears in a guitar battle segment where you must best the devil at playing the guitar, and it is considered one of the hardest songs in the game due to its fast tempo and solos. The guitar track alone was made availible as free downloadable content for the XBox 360 and PS3 versions of the game.
A 2006 Pepsi Commercial focused on a fiery duel between hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari and electric violinist Mark Wood as "the Devil." It included a remix of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" with rapper Nas, produced by Jay-Z.
Country singer Keith Urban also has a song "Devil Went Down to Nashville".
A band named Point blAnk has also covered the song in a heavy metal mode on the album Cast The First Stone.
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