February 22, 2015

The Devil Went Down to Georgia

I've been engaged in a conversation in comments on another blog about the many and varied representations of the Christian Devil. Someone there linked to the McSweeney's piece Thirty-Nine Questions for Charlie Daniels Upon Hearing "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" for the First Time in 25 Years. I have a longstanding hatred for that publication, and decided to take that particular list to pieces. Here you go:

And that, right there, is a shining example of why I hate McSweeney's. The smug, condescending, ignorant elitist hipsterism. The "humor" in that is supposed to be "Nobody has really thought about this before, they all took it on face value, but I really listened to it, and actually it was stupid." (And please, nobody try to tell me that that's supposed to be an "ironic" attitude. That's just meaning it but trying for plausible deniability.) The problem is that every single one of those questions can be answered by having a passing familiarity with the body of folklore that "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" comes out of and is a part of. The hipster assumes that other people are missing something -- the stupidity of the song -- but instead it is the hipster who is missing something -- the context of the song. Rather than actually go do some research and understand what's going on in the story, the hipster decides it would be really funny to turn it into a piece for McSweeney's, where they love this shit.

    1. The Devil won that fiddling contest, right?

    2. Because isn’t that totally amazing fiddle feedback thing the Devil
    plays (which sounds like Hendrix gone bluegrass) a hundred times better
    than that high-school-band piece-of-crap tune Johnny plays?

    3. I mean, come on, right?

    4. And since the Devil is so clearly better, why does he lay the golden fiddle on the ground at Johnny’s feet?

The intended audience of the song and its story has one important standard by which fiddle music is judged: that it makes you want to get up and dance to it, in the way they like to dance. Johnny's playing does exactly that, and very well -- and if this hipster shrimpdittle thinks Johnny's part is high-school-band crap, I invite him to fucking try it himself; that takes skill -- while the Devil's does not, even if Mx. My Taste Is Superior To Your Hipster likes it better.

There is another important standard, although the first one trumps it -- fiddle music that doesn't make you want to dance is worthless -- and that's technical difficulty. The Devil's technique is actually obscured by his band of demons; he's filling in to cover up the fact that his fiddling won't stand on its own. He can't do the runs Johnny can at the speed Johnny can without mistakes.

By the rules of the setting, Johnny is the winner.

    5. What kind of one-sided bet was that anyway, your eternal soul for a fiddle?

    6. Shouldn’t it have been something like Johnny’s soul or the eradication of Evil?

    7. Or maybe a golden fiddle against some object Johnny placed great value upon?

Um. If he just sold it as-is, the funds would set him and his entire extended family up for life as quite wealthy people.

But more than that, in this folklore, a fiddle made of gold is a magical object. This is one of those people-can't-stop-dancing-while-you-play, your-music-can-drive-away-evil, the-sound-of-it-has-other-magical-effects type of fiddle here. Even a poor fiddler could make a fortune playing an instrument like that, and there are tales of them doing just that. A musician as good as Johnny could, again, set up his entire extended family for life on the fees he got playing out, and more, he would have fame and recognition, which he may or may not have on his own. The temptation isn't just money, it's an appeal to what most musicians want: for their music to have an effect on the people they play for, and to be recognized and loved for it.

This is the shape of these stories: the temptation must be personal. To bring your beloved back from the grave, to give you a child, fame and fortune, power, great music, whatever your heart's desire might be.

    8. If the Devil went down to Georgia ’cause he was looking for a soul to steal, why does he arrange what appears to be an honest competition?

    9. Was there actually some hidden theft or scam going on here on the part of the Devil?

    10. Then why not explain that, Mr. Daniels?

The intended audience of this song already knows what's happening, so why the fuck should Charlie Daniels explain it to you, Mx. Hipster?

Johnny is, apparently, a reasonably good man, one who would go to heaven on his own, or the Devil wouldn't bother tempting him. The Devil isn't attempting to steal Johnny's soul from Johnny, he's attempting to steal it from God, to whom it would rightfully go upon Johnny's death. If Johnny loses, then his soul goes to hell when he dies instead. Old Scratch isn't going to tear it out of his body right this second. But if Johnny can win the contest, then he will have thwarted the Devil, which is definitionally a Good Thing.

    11. And who was judging that contest?

    12. Was it an honor-system kind of thing?

    13. With the Devil?

    14. Honor system with the Devil. How did Johnny get sucked into that one?

    15. Does Johnny suffer from some—I’m trying to be delicate here—cognitive disabilities?

Oh, yes, let's slip in a hicks-are-all-stupid-and-developmentally-disabled joke. That makes you look so much smarter, Mx. Hipster.

Again, context. It will be self-evident who the winner is, because in a story like this, music is its own truth, its own proof.

Context once more for this set: Yes, the Devil absolutely must keep his word on these bargains. If he doesn't, the deal is off. He loses. He can cheat by weasel-wording and building in clauses that trick you, but he absolutely must hold up his end of the bargain.

Ignoring 16-19 because I've just covered them. More of the same drivel.

    20. So why—why—does the Devil take the dive and throw the contest?!

    21. I mean, the Devil can’t be hurting for cash. How much is it going to cost him to buy a new golden fiddle?

    22. I’m thinking maybe $18,000. Does that sound right to you?

Um, I expect that an actual golden fiddle would cost upwards of $15mil to make. A violin -- which is not a fiddle, although you can play a violin as a fiddle; an Appalachian fiddle is generally broader built with thicker walls, but we'll go with the high end of violin weights for the sake of argument -- weighs between 400g and 500g. Glancing at today's gold prices, we find that in gold alone, a fiddle would cost around $603,000. Er, actually, that's way the fuck lowballing it. Gold is far denser than wood. A violin is made of a lot of different woods, but gold is about 25x as dense as maple, which we'll use as a handy figure. So for the same volume of gold as the wood that goes into a violin, it would cost more like $15,075,000. Plus you'd have to pay a luthier and a goldsmith by the hour to make something no one makes. Plus the custom strings. Expect it to cost a fuck of a lot. This goes back to the part where Johnny could sell the damned thing and set up his family for life -- the money went a lot farther in a small town in Georgia back in the day.

But that's not the actual point. Once again, this is an inherently magical object. Maybe not one-of-a-kind, but there can't be many of them, and given the folklore, it's a thing the Devil has acquired, not something he's made -- the Devil doesn't make things. This isn't something he can go out and buy.

But he lost, fair and square, and he has to abide by that.

    23. If you’re Johnny, what do you even want with a golden fiddle?

    24. Doesn’t the metallic surface of a golden fiddle create an
    unpalatably tinny sound as opposed to the nice resonant sound on a
    wooden instrument?

Magical instrument.

    25. Does he think he’s going to display it in his home and tell people the story of how he beat the Devil?

    26. Who’s going to believe that?

Sure. Why not? He lives in the world of folktales. He won't be the only one who's met the Devil.

Hell, even in the real world, at the time and place where these stories were told, a lot of people told them as personal ones -- look at the story of Robert Johnson. A lot of real people either told stories like this about themselves or there were others telling them as rumor about them.

But having a fucking fiddle on your mantelpiece would be a pretty good piece of evidence for that story, because where else would a Georgia fiddler get a thing like that if not from the Devil?

    27. Or does he try to sell the fiddle?

    28. If so, how does he go about getting something like that appraised?

    29. Or does he just melt it all down for the gold?

    30. That sounds awfully hard, don’t you think?

Well, he wouldn't sell it, for the reasons discussed, but if he decided to, he'd go to the city and find an instrument seller who knew a rich man and they'd set up to cheat him, and he'd beat them, too, because he's the hero of the story. A Johnny may not be a Jack, but he's good and skilled and reasonably clever.

    31. And is Johnny haunted by the question of why the Devil let him win like that?

    32. Was there some catch in the contest that Johnny wasn’t aware of
    where the Devil really does get his soul anyway and Johnny didn’t notice
    it because he’s not all that smart?

    33. And even if he didn’t get Johnny’s soul, what is Johnny going to
    say to God in heaven when he has to explain that he bet his soul, the
    essence of life, God’s one true gift, on a fiddle contest?

Nope. It might be a sin to take the bet in the first place, but it's one redeemed by winning the bet, and maybe by any good he does for others or by praising God as the source of the win, depending on whether he's a works or a faith type. Folklore tends to favor works, regardless of the local dogma.

    34. Johnny knows deep down that he’s not really the best that’s ever been and that’s the source of his insecure boasting, right?

Johnny has beat every other fiddler he's ever met -- fiddling contests were an actual thing -- and now he's beat the Devil Hisself. I think it's fair to say he's the best there's ever been.

    35. Was it really necessary or wise to invite the Devil to come on back if he ever wants to try again?

Nah, but it's fun. What's better than beating the Devil once? Beating him again and again and again... because the Devil is stubborn.

    36. ’Cause what does Johnny need, a second golden fiddle?

    37. Or maybe a golden viola the next time?

Ol' Splitfoot might come up with different stakes, but then again they might just do it for fun.

    38. Why would the Devil need an invitation?

Because it's a lightning-never-strikes-twice deal. Generally speaking, the Devil can only try this kind of trick once with any given person, unless they call him up for another go-round.

    39. Are you implying, Mr. Daniels, that Johnny actually wants to get hustled?


Some conversations ensued both there and on Twitter, and I thought I'd mention a few more things. The golden fiddle fits the same tradition as the golden harp found in many fairy tales, and that's prt of an even larger tradition of magical instruments made of various unconvential materials, such as the harp made of the bones and strung with the hair of the dead that accuses its killer found in some murder ballads.

The lyrics that go with Johnny's fiddling are references to traditional Appalachian music (Fire on the Mountain, Granny Does Your Dog Bite), famous Southern songs (House of the Rising Sun), and square dance patter (chicken in the bread pan). The has some nifty stuff about it.