The Devil went BACK to Georgia
written by Keith Jones - Mountain Storyteller
Most folks have heard the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band. You may not know that the song was written by members of the band: Vassar Clements, Charlie Daniels, Tom Crain, “Taz” DiGregorio, Fred Edwards, Charles Hayward, and James W. Marshall.
Toward the end of the song, Johnny says, “Now Devil, just come on back if you ever want to try again, ‘cause I’ve told you once, you son of a <bleep!> that I’m the best that’s ever been!” (Well, he said that on the broadcast version of the song. There’s no <bleep!> in the album version!)
As broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, this is the rest of the story…
Time is a grindstone, and lives are its grist. After Johnny won the contest with the Devil, there was still a living to be made. No matter how many Saturday night dances and play-parties Johnny fiddled for, there was never enough cash money in it to make a real living. Sure, he was famous far and wide as “that fiddlin’ boy from up in the hickory woods.” That didn’t keep Johnny from having to plow a mule, cut tops and pull fodder, and put up hay for his scrawny livestock.
No, Johnny never prospered as a farmer, he just hung on…barely. Maybe it was that fiddle of gold. The Devil’s prizes never come without a price, and that fiddle seemed to bring blighted corn, swarms of grasshoppers, and late or early frosts at just the wrong times.
Johnny finally made the long trek to the nearest town that had a pawn shop, but the broker took one look at the fiddle and said, “Gold, huh? Whoever told you that was a tee-total liar. Sure it’s got a thin—a very thin—coat of gold plating, but the fiddle itself is made out of brass. It won’t play worth a toot, and it’s not even worth melting down.” Johnny trudged home, disappointed once again. On the way, a thunderstorm broke, pelting him with hail. When he got home, his wheat crop was beaten to the ground.
Johnny’s life wasn’t all terrible. There was Mary. Daughter of the local hardshell Baptist preacher, he had a hard time courting her, for her Daddy was of the persuasion that a good person was one who didn’t “smoke, drink, cuss, nor chew, nor run around with women that do!” Johnny made the great effort to quit smoking and chewing, and his cussing was reserved for work times far away from anyone else when his stubborn old mule wouldn’t respond to anything else. He’d never been a skirt-chaser, in spite of lots of girls swooning and swanning over his fiddle playing. Drinking he never totally gave up, but he limited it enough so that finally he was able to marry his beautiful Mary. After a few years they had a houseful of kids. It was a good thing that Mary knew how to sew, otherwise those kids would have run around the woods naked.
Johnny was a better man because of Mary, but his ‘reform’ only went so far. He’d still go off on Fridays or Saturdays and play his fiddle for barn dances, box suppers, and the like. He’d come dragging in of a Sunday morning, just in time for Mary to sigh, “Oh Johnny!” with a shake of her head. But he’d hitch up the wagon and haul Mary and the kids to his daddy-in-law’s church. Never went in himself, mind you, but he’d pull to the edge of the church yard, or up the hill into the old cemetery where the mule could graze a bit, and where he could half-doze himself. Of course in those pre-air-conditioning days, Johnny couldn’t help but get a pretty big dose of the ‘old-time religion’ with the windows of the little white church house opened wide to snare any passing breeze.
Like I said before, time is a grindstone, and lives are its grist. Before he could reckon how it had happened, all the kids were grown up and had moved off in search of jobs. They’d come home at Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or sometimes for vacation time in the summer (but usually at lay-by time, Johnny noted grimly, not when heavy work was needed.) Finally the worst day of Johnny’s life came. Mary died on him.
Neighbors brought a bait of food, and they laid her to rest in the cemetery’s new part, since her daddy’s square was full of other family graves. Johnny was bothered a bit by that, since two of their babies who’d not lived to be toddlers were buried near the old preacher and his wife. It chaffed him that they weren’t near their momma, but nothing could be done.
In a day or two, the children and grandkids and neighbors went back to their lives. Johnny went back to his broken-down farm and his empty house. He noticed that now arthritis had swollen his hands so badly that it hurt to even play the fiddle—not that his heart was really into fiddling anymore. His back was bent from years of hard labor…and so the Devil picked that moment to come back.
Johnny was coming back from the privy when he heard his rocking chair squeaking in the front room, the room Mary had called the ‘parlor.’ What in the nation? thought Johnny. Nobody I know would just walk in the house and make themselves at home! He bent down to try and look through the latchcord hole, but suddenly the door banged open on its own.
“HEY JOHNNY, I’M BAAAACK!” The devil had on a slick-shiny black suit with a black shirt, black tie, and a blood ruby stickpin big as a pigeon egg. He sprang out of the chair with an evil grin and a menacing glance. Suddenly a greasy-black ebony fiddle appeared in his hand. He tucked the ugly thing under his chin and scraped the bow over the strings. It made the same evil hiss Johnny remembered from fifty-one years before. “I’ve been practicing, Johnny!” The Devil’s eyes flamed red as he played every song Johnny had done in their old contest—but better than Johnny had ever even thought about playing them.
“I don’t want to play against you,” Johnny said, limping over to the cupboard and snatching out the fiddle of “gold.” “Here, take this back.”
“Oh, no, Johnny, you won that fair and square. You keep it.”
“I don’t want it! It’s worthless! It’s just a hunk of tinny brass dressed up to look like gold.”
“What did you expect from the father of lies? Now quit this fooling around. Your turn to play! Or I could just take your soul right now.” All of a sudden the Devil seemed to fill the little front room, looming over Johnny with an intimidating shadow.
The moment Johnny dreaded had finally come due. Why, oh why did I ever say, “Just come on back if you ever want to try again?”
Somehow that threat made Johnny’s back get a little straighter. If I’m going down below, I will NOT just give up. I’m not the fiddler I was, but I’ll be whatever fiddler I can be.
Johnny reached back into the cupboard, to a different compartment where he stored his old fiddle and bow. He pulled it out, dusted it off, and rosined up his bow. “Gotta tune this thing,” he said.
“Get on with it. I’m way behind, as usual. Places to go, things to do, the earth to roam, souls to devour.” To emphasize his impatience, the devil swung an enormous gold turnip-style pocket watch. Just in time, Johnny realized that the swinging watch was a trap, that the Devil was trying to lull him to sleep or hypnotize him.
“You played your set, let me play mine my way.” Johnny tightened the first tuning peg. While his attention was on the task, he failed to notice the Devil squinch up his eyes, fold his arms and tap his left foot with impatience. Johnny didn’t see that one of the Devil’s fingers was sneaking out from behind his folded arms. Neither did he notice the little bolt of fire that flew from it. He only noticed the TWAAANNG as the string he was tuning broke.
Johnny was still staring in dismay at the broken string when TWINGGG, TWAANNG, two more of the strings snapped.
“Looks like you should have invested in some new strings,” sneered the Devil.
“Ummm, you’re probably right,” mumbled Johnny, but inside his head, his mind was racing. Down to one string… arthritic hands… no chance at all, except maybe one thing…
Lord this here’s Johnny. I know you and me ain’t been much on speaking terms. I just remember my Mary sure believed in You. You see what a terrible situation I’ve got myself into here. I know there’s no way in he… uh, no way in heaven that I deserve any help from you. But it just bothers me that this here Devil will win out. Like I said, I don’t deserve any help at all, but please just help me play this one song. Lord, please do it just to show how much better You are than that old Devil. Uh…Amen, I reckon.
Johnny didn’t know if his rough and ready prayer had even been heard, but there was nothing for it but to pitch in. He set the bow on the one string that was left, and started in on that one old American folk tune. In his head, Johnny could remember his Mary singing the song so many times.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found…
At the first note, the Devil’s face had blackened with rage. His body ‘swole up’ until it seemed it would push out the walls of the room. Huge sparks flew from his eyebrows, his ears, and blue lightning rolled and bowled around his hands.
Johnny didn’t notice. His eyes were closed. His heart heard Mary’s sweet voice echoing again in his memory. Slowly he drew out the notes of the last phrase.
…Was blind,,, but now… I… see.
The Devil’s rage boiled over like a black kettle of cane syrup spilling in the fire. Reams of blue and red lightning struck Johnny’s old fiddle. It flew into dust and splinters. Johnny’s body jerked once, spasmed, and then fell to the floor—dead as an anvil and boneless as a half-filled sack of stale grits.
And so the Devil got Johnny. His body, anyway.
But the Lord… the Lord got Johnny’s soul!
Now that's a story I like!