Monday, December 19, 2011

America and Johnny: Both Seduced By the Devil

The Devil Went Down To Georgia is one of the best known songs in the US, embodying what has become a legend of Americana. The devil challenges a talented boy named Johnny to a fiddle-playing contest, wagering a golden fiddle against the boy’s soul. The boy outplays his infernal opponent, and wins the expensive and shiny prize:

The devil bowed his head because he knew that he'd been beat.
He laid that golden fiddle on the ground at Johnny's feet.
Johnny said: "Devil just come on back if you ever want to try again.
"I done told you once, you son of a bitch, I'm the best that's ever been."

The underlying message embraces values of competition, materialism, and individualism. Unvarnished praise of gold-lust is given a special twist: as long as you are very good at what you do, it is okay to be reckless and immoral. In the song, Johnny admits that accepting the Devil’s challenge is sinful, but he doesn’t care, boasting with unflappable and audacious arrogance:

The boy said: "My name's Johnny and it might be a sin,
"But I'll take your bet, your gonna regret, 'cos I'm the best that's ever been."

The cultural encryptions in the song support the kind of norms you would expect in America, an imperious and self-aggrandizing place. In good Roman fashion, the US has battened on wealth, and imploded into a lopsided aftermath of decadence and poverty. It is now descendant after a brief run on top, making it the shortest-lived empire of all time.

This precipitous decline has a lot to do with the theme of Charlie Daniels’ song, a surreptitious message in the psyche of extreme capitalism:

If you try hard and have great talent, you can beat the Devil.

This message is not only flawed, poisonous actually, it is a gateway to disaster. The real truth in the song, The Devil Went Down to Georgia, is that the Devil cannot lose. As soon as Johnny takes the bet, the Devil wins, no matter the outcome of the competition.

If the Devil outplays Johnny, the boy’s soul is lost in a blink. Reckless is a stupid way to gamble.

If Johnny outplays the Devil, he gets a golden fiddle. Okay, what next? The fiddle becomes the Eye of his life, the lens of his great moment. It fixates him on risky triumph and associates thrill with gold. The fiddle enamors the immature upstart, making object master.

We can imagine the insidious way this glittering possession possesses. To justify his outlandish risk, Johnny convinces himself that his soul has no more worth than a fancy yet simple instrument.

By handing Johnny the fiddle, the Devil spreads an itch for wealth, a pride in danger, and scorn for humility. Life becomes a trophy hunt.

A plausible ending: Johnny, haughty already, goes home and brags about his prize, tucking it under his pillow at night. He does a fine job spreading seeds that the Devil wants spread: selfishness, avarice, impulse. Johnny’s virtuosity wanes. He has convinced himself that he plays for riches, not excellence. The rest of his life becomes a monetary quest.

Eventually, the boy who 'beat' the personification of Evil is shot and killed by covetous thieves.

In “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” the satanic bard cannot lose. In fact, taking Johnny’s soul is probably the lesser way to debauch humanity. Why not let Johnny have the fiddle so he can infect others and sow discord?

The United States acts like Johnny. It thinks that if it blusters and saber-rattles, it can beat the Devil, and do whatever it wants.

Big corporations act this way too. Sociopathic of ego, incautious, they push us into a bewildering future. As the victors rush ahead, accelerating the profit craze, tens of millions of people get left to languish in irrelevance.

The United States thinks it can beat the Devil. But just like Johnny, the US is trapped in a no-win situation. Once you take the bet, you're in chains. When arrogance makes you think you can step beyond good and evil, you lose.


Owl

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis. I have to think where I can take this idea. We shall see.

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