The Devil Deals It Hard — A CDB Exegesis


So this morning, I’m driving to work, listening to a CD someone burned for me, and thus end up, as every good red-blooded American should every once in a while, listening again to The Devil Went Down to Georgia.

I’ve had some variation of conversation about this song a few times over the years, with those who find flaws in the logic behind the story. things like why Johnny is willing to bet his soul for a largely worthless fiddle, and how exactly he beats the Devil, among others.

Having listened to the song countless times, it’s my theory that the Devil doesn’t actually lose out, that things turned out exactly as he hoped. In my opinion, the golden fiddle is simply a loss leader.

(Now, I must insert here that my views might be contradictory to the song’s sequel, The Devil Comes Back To Georgia. In my opinion, however, this obviously derivative work is the Gnostic gospels of the Devil in Georgia, purely non-canonical and, at best, apocryphal.)

You’ll recall that this wasn’t just a lark for the Devil; he had a particular motivation — “he was in a bind ‘cos he was way behind; he was willin’ to make a deal.” The key thing to note here is that he was way behind. He doesn’t just need one soul, he needs many.

And if you’re trying to reach the masses, what you need is a good marketing campaign. You want to make people come to you. You need something to bring them in, or you need a good word-of-mouth campaign.

Say you’re Johnny. And on the one hand, you have the only thing you have of value — your immortal soul. And on the other hand, you have “this shiny fiddle made of gold.” OK, seriously? What value is that that you’re going to risk eternal damnation for it? I’m giving Johnny the benefit of the doubt that his thought process was more than simply, “Ooooh, shiny.”

For Johnny, the fiddle is, quite simply, bragging rights. He’s confident he’s “the best that’s ever been.” So, he figures, he beats the Devil, claims the fiddle, takes it home, and puts it up in the living room. “Say, Johnny, where’dja get that fancy golden fiddle there, huh?” “Well, funny you should ask that …”

But, see, that’s what the Devil’s counting on, too. You’ll note that the contest has no impartial arbiter. The Devil, who, I should point out, puts up a rather impressive performance himself, simply says, OK, you win, and lays the golden fiddle on the ground at Johnny’s feet. No protest, no defiance, simply graceful submission. Now, granted, there’s the honor code that demons have to live by, but even so …

Because the important part is what happens after the song ends there. Because you KNOW Johnny takes the fiddle home. And you KNOW he puts it on display. And you KNOW his friends come over and ask about it. And you KNOW the story of his great defeat of the Devil starts to spread.

And, people being people, you know they start thinking, well, “You know, if Johnny can beat the Devil …” And so the next thing you know, Georgians are actually coming to Old Scratch. He’s not even having to look them up. And then, it’s “Now, you play pretty good horseshoes, son, but give the Devil his due …” or “I’ll bet this chainsaw of gold against your soul” or “I bet you didn’t know it, but I’m a needle-pointer, too.”

And for the price of one worthless-to-him shiny fiddle, the Devil gets his due.

According to Charles Baudelaire, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.

The second greatest was convincing Georgia he can’t play fiddle.

3 Responses

  1. […] The Devil Deals It Hard — A CDB Exigesis « stories in my pocket […]

  2. Good theories. A possible alternative is that he was “way behind” in total AMOUNT of soul but not in total NUMBERS of souls. Maybe Johnny had an extra-big soul, if you will. Note that the devil wasn’t necessarily looking for “some souls” to steal, but “a soul.” Maybe what he needed was a big catch, like the apparently-soulful Johnny, to catch up in total “soul points” or whatever.

    Sure, this violates the commonly-assumed Christian precept of all souls being equal in the eyes of God, but since the basic premise of the song essentially ditches traditional theology in favor of a betting-based scheme of damnation, I’m comfortable suggesting this might be true within the confines of the song.

    Also, maybe God was the arbiter of the contest, but only the Devil could hear his voice. Maybe the Devil was disqualified for challenging someone to an implied mano-a-mano (or mano-a-diablo) contest and then getting backup from “a band of demons.”

    I totally agree, though, that Johnny is going to go home bragging. He always struck me as a stuck up little so-and-so. I’d actually have liked the song better if the Devil won.

  3. Hmmmm. You raise a good point about “a soul.” Hadn’t considered that.

    Of course, maybe he was way behind time-wise; perhaps it’s a theology where God and Satan race for individual souls. Who knows?

    And you assume that the band of demons were relevant to the outcome of the contest and not purely ancillary (along with, perhaps, Johnny’s brilliant lyricizing about whether Granny’s dog bites, clearly another unfair attempt to add to the contest). Frankly, that would explain a little better how Johnny won — each was measured PURELY on the basis of their actual fiddling.

    Well, you should write your own follow-up then, “The Devil Comes Back To Georgia A Second Time.”

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