Whoosh! It’s been a minute since my last post, hasn’t it?
For some reason, I’ve been listening to what you might call “folkloric music” lately. That is, music that tells a folktale or a tall tale — or at least, a “folktale-like” story. Today’s example: Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”.
The song tells the story of a fiddle player named Johnny, who is challenged to a fiddle contest by the devil. If Johnny wins, he gets a solid gold fiddle —
But if you lose, the Devil gets your soul…
Here’s the Primus version, which I admit I like better than the Charlie Daniels’ version. It comes with a cool Claymation video:
It sounds like a folktale, doesn’t it? It’s filled with references to actual folksongs and folk-rhymes: “Fire on the mountain, run boys run”, and “Chicken in the bread pan pickin’ out dough/Granny does your dog bite? No, child, no”. If it were a folktale, it would be in category 756B of the Aarne-Thompson classification scheme: “The devil’s contract.”
Many famous musicians, in particular Blues musicians, are alleged to have sold their soul to the Devil in exchange for fame and success, which is probably why this song sounds so folklorically familiar. One of the best known stories of this kind is about Blues guitarist Robert Johnson. Supposedly, the Devil met Johnson at a crossroad at midnight, and tuned Johnson’s guitar for him. With this guitar, Johnson became the greatest guitarist in the world. I think Robert Crumb did a comic about this legend (or maybe it was about Tommy Johnson — also a blues guitarist, about whom the same legend circulates).
In fact, Charlie Daniels claims to have written the song more or less sui generis. He says that possibly the inspiration for the song came from Stephen Vincent Benet’s poem, “Mountain Whippoorwill”, about a poor hillbilly boy who enters a fiddle contest. I found a version of the poem set to music, from the Florida Folk Festival, sometime in the seventies. I’m not sure who is performing it. It’s a great poem:
Coincidentally, Benet also wrote the short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, which is a pretty good tall tale itself. In it, a practically superheroic version of the Secretary of State under Millard Fillmore and William Henry Harrison defends a farmer who has sold his soul to the Devil, in the Devil’s own court. Mr. Webster wins, of course.