The song is written in the key of D minor. Vassar Clements originally wrote the basic melody an octave lower, in a tune called "Lonesome Fiddle Blues" released on Clements' self-titled 1975 album on which Charlie Daniels played guitar. The 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., recitation), and tell the story of a boy named Johnny, in a variant on the classic deal with the Devil. The performances of Satan and Johnny are played as instrumental bridges. The song was the band's biggest hit, reaching number three on the Billboard Hot 100, prevented from further chart movement by "After The Love Has Gone" by Earth, Wind and Fire and "My Sharona" by The Knack. It is featured in the 1980 film Urban Cowboy, whose choreographer, Patsy Swayze, claims that she set the song's tempo. "How fast can you dance it?" Daniels asked. "How fast can you play it?" Swayze replied, but considering that the song was recorded in December 1978 and Urban Cowboy was filmed in 1979, it would have been impossible for Swayze to set the recorded song's tempo.
The song is an uptempo bluegrass song about the Devil's failed attempt to "steal" a young man's soul through a fiddle-playing contest that involved enticing the young man's participation using a worldly prize. The song begins with a disappointed Devil arriving in Georgia, having stolen far fewer souls than expected, when he comes upon a fiddle-playing young man named Johnny. At that moment, Johnny happens to be playing his fiddle impressively "hot." Out of desperation, the Devil, who as it turns out also plays the fiddle, offers Johnny the wager which involves challenging the young man to a fiddle-playing contest. The Devil offers to give Johnny a golden fiddle if the young man plays better than he does; otherwise, the Devil will gain Johnny's soul. Although Johnny believes taking the Devil's bet might be a sin, he wagers his soul without fear, confidently boasting that he is "the best that's ever been."
The Devil plays his fiddle first, to a contemporary rock music theme with the backing of demon musicians. When the Devil's performance ends, Johnny compliments him and takes his own turn, making reference to four songs. Two are traditional songs of Appalachia -- "Fire on the Mountain" (also the name of Daniels' 1974 album) and "Granny Does Your Dog Bite?" (the latter traditionally known as "Granny Will Your Dog Bite?"). The third is an unnamed square dance melody that includes the patter, "Chicken in the bread pan pickin' out dough." (The country music standard "Ida Red", as most famously recorded by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, includes the lyric "Chicken in the bread pan pickin' out dough / Granny will your dog bite, no child no.") The last is a traditional American southern folk song "The House of the Rising Sun." The four songs are not performed but are only mentioned by reference. The Devil is impressed, admits defeat, and lays the golden fiddle at Johnny's feet. Johnny repeats his claim to be the best player ever and dares the Devil to a rematch in the future.
Johnny's final boast, as originally recorded for the Million Mile Reflections album, goes "I done told you once, you son of a bitch, I'm the best that's ever been." To accommodate radio airplay (both Country and Top 40 formats), the 45 RPM single release overdubbed that portion of the lyric as "'Cause I told you once, you son of a gun, I'm the best that's ever been." (The uncensored album version appears on the soundtrack of the movie Urban Cowboy, and it is this version that has been used on numerous music compilations since then.) Thus, Johnny maintains his virtue, keeping his soul from the Devil by displaying his musical virtuosity in performing traditional songs of America's South.
The ballad's story is a derivative of the traditional deal 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 (1925), that I had in high school."
Parodies and covers
- The Muppets performed a version of the song in The Muppet Show with special guest star Alan Arkin in 1980.
- Alvin and the Chipmunks recorded the song in the 1993 re-release version of their 1981 album Urban Chipmunk. In this version, the devil is after Alvin, who bets not only his soul but also his brothers Simon and Theodore's as well in a harmonica-playing contest.
- The Levellers released a version of the song in 1991.
- Although it is frequently misattributed to David Allan Coe or "Weird Al" Yankovic, musician Travis Meyer performed a parody entitled "The Devil Went Down to Jamaica", in which Johnny is recast as a Jamaican drug dealer who is challenged by the devil to a pot-smoking contest to see whose marijuana is best: his, or Johnny's.
- It was also parodied by Cledus T. Judd as "Cledus Went Down to Florida", and by a Christian parody group called ApologetiX as "The Devil Went Down to Jordan".
- Mexican country band Caballo Dorado recorded a Spanish version called "El diablo bajó a Georgia" on their album debut "Carretera 54".
- The rap group K.M.C. Kru released a hip hop re-imagining of the song entitled "The Devil Came Up to Michigan" in 1991, featuring the devil and a deejay competing for a turntable of gold.
- Rock/metal band Primus recorded a version of the song, which was released as a claymation music video on their 1998 Rhinoplasty EP and its companion Videoplasty video album, and also re-released on their 2003 EP Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People. The video, attributed to the fictional group "Festus Clamrod & The El Sobrante Twangers," was directed by Mike Johnson.
- Heavy metal band Brazen Angel covered this song, on the Metal for Eternity album.
- Steve Ouimette (with Ed DeGenaro) performed a cover of the song for the 2007 video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. This version uses electric guitars instead of fiddles, though the original lyrics are still performed. It is played as the conclusion of the game in a simulated guitar battle with the devil. Daniels objected to this version on the grounds that the devil often wins the contest, which he referred to as "violating the very essence of the song".
- Boston-based alternative band the Adam Ezra Group released a parody of the song in 2013 called "The Devil Came Up To Boston". It depicted the devil as a New Yorker who comes to Boston to have a fiddle-playing battle with a Bostonian youth. This premise itself is a play on the rivalry between Boston and New York. It parodies many other stereotypes and facets of Boston and its culture, such as its distinctive dialect, its Irish heritage, and its notoriously loud subway system, among other things. The song became a bit of a local legend in the Boston area, as many radio stations desired to play it, but could not because of its extensive use of profanity, itself another stereotype of Bostonians.
- Pop singer and electric violinist Michelle Lambert recorded a version of the song in 2015, and released a music video. In her rendition "Johnny" is replaced by "Michelle".
- A cappella group Home Free recorded a version of the song in collaboration with Taylor Davis and Charlie Daniels playing fiddle, released in September 2015. The narration is performed by Home Free bass singer Tim Foust.
- The rock band Blues Traveler often performs this song in concert, with John Popper playing the fiddle parts on harmonica. The band released a live version of the song on their 2006 EP ¡Bastardos en Vivo!.
- Electric string quartet Stringfever recorded a cover of the song on their 2009 album Stringfever.
- Futurama featured a parody of the song in episode 9 of season 1.
- Robot Chicken featured a composite parody of the song along with the animated series Spawn in episode 49 of season 3, where Malebolgia, an infernal lord, is challenged by Spawn to a fiddle duel set to a similar tune.
- Ryan Kelly, a member of the Irish stage production Celtic Thunder, covered the song for their most recent CD/DVD set Celtic Thunder X.
- Gymnast Dominique Moceanu used this song during her floor exercise at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, to a raucous hometown applause.
- British punk band The Toy Dolls rendered their own version, "The Devil went down to Scunthorpe", in their 1997 album One More Megabyte.
- Jerry Reed recorded a cover that changed the fiddle to a guitar, released on his 1981 album Dixie Dreams.
- Adrenaline Mob recorded a cover of the song, released on their 2015 album Dearly Departed.
- UK comedy folk band, The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican recorded a Yorkshire-based parody of the song, with special guests including Maartin Allcock from Fairport Convention on bass, Eliza Carthy on fiddle, Graham Oliver from the heavy metal band, Saxon and Mike Harding as the Lancastrian voice of the Devil. It was released as a limited edition vinyl 7-inch single with artwork from Jeremy Cunningham from the British folk-punk band The Levellers, and on their 2015 studio album The Tarn Machine.
The original version of the song spent fourteen weeks on the Hot Country Singles charts in 1979, peaking at number 1 and holding the position for one week. It spent two weeks at a peak of number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The single was certified Platinum by the RIAA on December 20, 1989, for sales of over one million copies in the United States.
Since it became available as a download in the digital era, it has also sold 2.297 million digital copies in the US as of November 2016.
In June 1998, Epic Records re-released the song to country radio, but accidentally sent out the version in which the line "son of a bitch" was uncensored. This error was quickly corrected, and the song re-entered the country charts at number 62 for the chart dated June 20, 1998. It spent seven weeks on the chart and peaked at number 60.
In 1993, a sequel to the song, titled "The Devil Comes Back to Georgia", was recorded and released by Daniels and fiddle player Mark O'Connor, featuring guest performances by Travis Tritt (as the devil), Marty Stuart (as Johnny) and Johnny Cash as the narrator. The song can be found on Mark O'Connor's album, Heroes.
In the sequel, the devil, his anger still unabated ten years after his defeat at young Johnny's hands, decides to take up the boy's challenge to "c'mon back if you ever wanna try again". With Johnny now an adult and married with an infant son, the devil is convinced that Johnny's sinful pride will be his undoing, so he takes back the golden fiddle he lost to Johnny, and forces him to practice with his old fiddle before their rematch.
Though the lyrics of the song state that "Johnny's the best that's ever been", reiterating his bold claim in the original song, the sequel's lyrics do not reveal who won the rematch, but the music video shows that Johnny again prevails.