He’s best known for writing the short story The Devil and Daniel Webster or the epic Civil War poem John Brown’s Body. He also adapted the Roman story of the Sabine women abduction into a tale called The Sobbin’ Women which was in turn adapted into Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Honestly though, none of that concerns us here. Benet wrote a fine poem called The Mountain Whippoorwill and that, combined with a hot fiddle tune written by Vasser Clements called Lonesome Fiddle Blues, would go on to inspire the enduring country classic The Devil Went Down to Georgia by Charlie Daniels.
Daniels put words to the melody in about 1979 and gained wide exposure through the film Urban Cowboy. It has aged much better than Scott Glen’s mesh t-shirt.
Devils in American folk music go back all the way to the beginning. Early sacred harp songbooks often included secular songs in the hymn books like Turkey in the Straw and Barbara Allen, something Alan Lomax called the Devil’s ditties. The singers, not allowed to dance, could still rob the devil of his best tunes and sing the old carnal songs.
Charlie Daniels is a complex man and reminds me a bit of Merle Haggard in that he’s hard to pin down. He speaks his mind and is as likely to say hyper-patriotic rhetoric on Fox News as he is to sing the great country hippie anthem Uneasy Rider. Or this line from In America:
We’ll all stick together and you can take that to the bank
That’s the cowboys and the hippies and the rebels and the yanks
I like a man not easily pinned down. Too many of the country blowhards today are two dimensional clowns blowing in the wind.
I also like that Daniels read a poem and read it enough to work it into a song. The Devil Went Down to Georgia is pure folk process. You old-time fans should play it and play it loud.
Lonesome Fiddle Blues, Vasser Clements & the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
The Devil Went Down to Georgia, Charlie Daniels
A couple of loosely related fiddle tunes. The version of Fire on the Mountain was recorded live for a Mother’s Best Flour radio Hank Williams’ band The Drifting Cowboys in 1951. Hank introduces his fiddler as Burr-head Rivers in reference to Jerry Rivers’ buzz hair cut.
Hell Broke Loose In Georgia, The Freight Hoppers
Fire on the Mountain, Jerry Rivers and the Drifting Cowboys
“The Mountain Whippoorwill” by Stephen Vincent Benet
Or, How Hill-Billy Jim Won The Great Fiddler’s Prize
(A Georgia Romance)
Up in the mountains, it’s lonesome all the time,
(Sof win’ slewin’ thu’ the sweet-potato vine).
Up in the mountains, it’s lonesome for a child,
(Whippoorwills a-callin’ when the sap runs wild).
Up in the mountains, mountains in the fog,
Everything as lazy as an old houn’ dog.
Born in the mountains, never raised a pet,
Don’t want nuthin’ an’ never got it yet.
Born in the mountains, lonesome-born,
Raised runnin’ ragged thu’ the cockleburrs and corn.
Never knew my pappy, mebbe never should.
Think he was a fiddle made of mountain laurel-wood.
Never had a mammy to teach me pretty-please.
Think she was a whippoorwill, a-skitin’ thu’ the trees.
Never had a brother ner a whole pair of pants,
But when I start to fiddle, why, yuh got to start to dance!
Listen to my fiddle Kingdom Come—Kingdom Come!
Hear the frogs a-chunkin’ “Jug o’ rum, Jug o’ rum!”
Hear that mountain-whippoorwill be lonesome in the air.
An’ I’ll tell yuh how I traveled to the Essex County Fair.
Essex County has a mighty pretty fair,
All the smarty fiddlers from the South come there.
Elbows flyin’ as they rosin up the bow
For the First Prize Contest in the Georgia Fiddlers’ Show.
Old Dan Wheeling, with his whiskers in his ears,
King-pin fiddler for nearly twenty years.
Big Tom Sargent, with his blue wall-eye,
An’ Little Jimmy Weezer that can make a fiddle cry.
All sittin’ roun’, spittin’ high an’ struttin’? proud,
(Listen, little whippoorwill, yuh better bug yore eyes!)
Tun-a-tun-a-tunin’ while the jedges told the crowd
Them that got the mostest claps’d win the bestest prize.
Everybody waitin’for the first tweedle-dee,
When in comes a-stumblin’—hill-billy me!
Bowed right pretty to the jedges an’ the rest,
Took a silver dollar from a hole inside my vest,
Plunked it on the table an’ said, “There’s my callin’ card!
An’ anyone that licks me well, he’s got to fiddle hard!”
Old Dan Wheeling, he was laughin’ fit to holler,
Little Jimmy Weezer said, ”There’s one dead dollar!”
Big Tom Sargent had a yaller-toothy grin,
But I tucked my little whippoorwill spang underneath my chin,
An’ petted it an’ tuned it till the jedges said, “Begin!”
Big Tom Sargent was the first in line;
He could fiddle all the bugs off a sweet-potato vine.
He could fiddle down a possum from a mile-high tree.
He could fiddle up a whale from the bottom of the sea.
Yuh could hear hands spankin’ till they spanked each other raw,
When he finished variations on “Turkey in the Straw.”
Little Jimmy Weezer was the next to play;
He could fiddle all night, he could fiddle all day.
He could fiddle chills, he could fiddle fever,
He could make a fiddle rustle like a lowland river.
He could make a fiddle croon like a lovin’ woman.
An’ they clapped like thunder when he’d finished strummin’.
Then came the ruck of the bob-tailed fiddlers,
The let’s go-easies, the fair-to-middlers.
They got their claps an’ they lost their bicker,
An’ settled back for some more corn-licker.
An’ the crowd was tired of their no-count squealing,
When out in the center steps Old Dan Wheeling.
He fiddled high and he fiddled low,
(Listen, little whippoorwill; yuh got to spread yore wings!)
He fiddled with a cherrywood bow.
(Old Dan Wheelings got bee-honey in his strings.)
He fiddled the wind by the lonesome moon,
He fiddled a most almighty tune.
He started fiddling like a ghost,
He ended fiddling like a host.
He fiddled north an’ he fiddled south,
He fiddled the heart right out of yore mouth.
He fiddled here an’ he fiddled there.
He fiddled salvation everywhere.
When he was finished, the crowd cut loose,
(Whippoorwill, they’s rain on yore breast.)
An’ I sat there wondering “What’s the use?”
(Whippoorwill, fly home to yore nest.)
But I stood up pert an’ I took my bow,
An’ my fiddle went to my shoulder, so.
An’ they wasn’t no crowd to get me fazed
But I was alone where I was raised.
Up in the mountains, so still it makes yuh skeered.
Where God lies sleepin’ in his big white beard.
An” I heard the sound of the squirrel in the pine,
An’ I heard the earth a-breathin’ thu’ the long night-time.
They’ve fiddled the rose, an’ they’ve fiddled the thorn,
But they haven’t fiddled the mountain-corn.
They’ve fiddled sinful an’ fiddled moral,
But they haven’t fiddled the breshwood-laurel.
They’ve fiddled loud, an’ they’ve fiddled still,
But they haven’t fiddled the whippoorwill.
I started off with a dump-diddle-dump,
(Oh, hell’s broke loose in Georgia!)
Skunk-cabbage growin’ by the bee-gum stump,
(Whippoorwill, yo’re singin’ now!)
Oh, Georgia booze is mighty fine booze,
The best yuh ever poured yuh,
But it eats the soles right offen yore shoes,
For Hell’s broke loose in Georgia.
My mother was a whippoorwill pert,
My father, he was lazy,
But I’m Hell broke loose in a new store shirt
To fiddle all Georgia crazy.
Swing yore partners up an’ down the middle!
Sashay now—oh, listen to that fiddle!
Flapjacks flippin’ on a red-hot griddle,
An’ hell broke loose,
Hell broke loose,
Fire on the mountains snakes in the grass.
Satan’s here a-bilin’—oh, Lordy, let him pass!
Go down Moses, set my people free,
Pop goes the weasel thu’ the old Red Sea!
Jonah sittin’ on a hickory-bough,
Up jumps a whale—an’ where’s yore prophet now?
Rabbit in the pea-patch, possum in the pot,
Try an’ stop my fiddle, now my fiddle’s gettin’ hot!
Whippoorwill, singin’ thu’ the mountain hush,
Whippoorwill, shoutin’ from the burnin’ bush,
Whippoorwill, cryin’ in the stable-door,
Sing to-night as yuh never sang before!
Hell’s broke loose like a stompin’ mountain-shoat,
Sing till yuh bust the gold in yore throat!
Hell’s broke loose for forty miles aroun’
Bound to stop yore music if yuh don’t sing it down.
Sing on the mountains, little whippoorwill,
Sing to the valleys, an’ slap ’em with a hill,
For I’m struttin’ high as an eagle’s quill,
An’ Hell’s broke loose,
Hell’s broke loose,
Hell’s broke loose in Georgia!
They wasn’t a sound when I stopped bowin’,
(Whippoorwill, yuh can sing no more.)
But, somewhere or other, the dawn was growing
(Oh, mountain whippoorwill!)
An’ I thought, “I’ve fiddled all night an’ lost.
Yo’re a good hill-billy, but yuh’ve been bossed.
So I went to congratulate old man Dan,
—But he put his fiddle into my han’—
An’ then the noise of the crowd began.