Play That Funky Music, Satan

I’m going to examine a short section of a well-known song.  This instrumental break was never innovative or influential– it didn’t brashly proclaim a new genre of jazz like Charlie Parker’s double-time alto sax break in “Night in Tunisia,” and it would never lay a sampled foundation for decades of future hip-hop and electronic music like the “Amen Break.”  However, when we consider the story, genre, artist, and cultural milieu behind Charlie Daniels’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (1979), the 16-bar interlude– I’ll call it the “Devil’s Break,” in which Lucifer rips his bow across his strings with the musical equivalent of Sherman’s March to the Sea– deserves some in-depth discussion.

We’ll start with two points regarding the song’s subject matter and style: First, the song’s subject matter is a variation of a very old folk tale involving a deal with the Devil.  There are many more retellings of this story than we have time to get into here, from Goethe to Stravinsky to Robert Johnson to Zappa; suffice to say that a main character chooses to wager his soul with the Devil in exchange for knowledge, talent, a gold violin, or just plain titties’n’beer.

Second, there’s the song’s style and genre–it is a fast-paced bluegrass tune, centered around a sixteenth note fiddle reel, which for the most part follows a descending minor lamento chord progression.  It’s incredibly catchy, and the fiddle reel is obviously enough to defeat the Prince of Darkness himself.  But there is something more, something different in the Devil’s Break.  You see, when Satan

pulled the bow across the strings and it made an evil hiss.                                                                  And a band of demons joined in and it sounded something like… 

FUNK.

The tempo kicks back to a half-time feel, the key moves from harmonic minor to the Dorian mode, the guitar begins dead string comping on its upper strings, and a clavinet that sounds straight out of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” appears out of nowhere.  The Devil’s Break actually sounds quite similar to a sped up version of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.”  I’ve taken the liberty of mashing the two up just to show this.

So, quite simply, the Devil Plays Funk.  Funk loses to Bluegrass.  We need to take this further.

***

For the rest of this essay, I’m going to look at the historical and social background that shows why the funky Devil Break is culturally significant, perhaps more so than Daniels ever intended it to be.  Before we go there, however, we need to just address the simple, on-the-surface reasons that Daniels threw in this little chunk’o’funk onto his bluegrass lawn.  Several months ago, when I initially posted some of these observations and questions on facebook, my brother-in-law, the talented guitarist Jackson Evans, pointed out that Daniels probably just added the funky Devil Break because in the late 1970s, funk sold.  This is true.

The entire period from the mid 60s to late 70s was one of huge social, cultural, racial, and political upheaval in the U.S.  Music was not exempt.  This was one of the most fertile times of musical genres mixing, morphing, and synthesizing with one another, for better or for worse.  Rock groups like Queen, Kansas, Led Zeppelin, and Rush combined operatic themes and complex, epic musical forms into what would become “prog rock.” Jazz musicians like Miles Davis and George Benson moved away from the swing, traded their archtop guitars and double basses for solid body instruments, and began jazz-rock “fusion.”  Rock groups like Chicago, Cold Blood, and Wild Cherry adopted funk motifs and horn sections.  Established bands such as the Rolling Stones dipped their toes into nearly every musical genre of the decade. Blues begat soul, soul begat funk, funk begat disco, punk punched disco in the face and begat New Wave, and so on and so forth.  We all know this story.

Charlie Daniels was very much in the midst of this unprecedented musical mestizaje.  He certainly realized the paradox of being a product of The South, the most insular and culturally conservative region of the United States, but also owing his fame to a post-hippie mass interest in diverse musical niches.  In other words, he was in a great position to be an intermediary in the emerging culture wars, another product of the 1970s.

Plenty of his songs predating “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” explicitly stated this: 1971’s “Uneasy Rider” brilliantly lightened up the dark story of hippies and rednecks from the movie Easy Rider and poked fun at Southerners’ paranoia about federal incursion by the FBI and George McGovern.  1974’s “Long Haired Country Boy” breached the stoner/drinker divide and called out Southern television preachers for their hypocrisy.  Even Daniels using the term “Son of a Bitch” at the end of “The Devil” (which was changed to “Son of a Gun” for radio play) was a significant breach of Old Southern decorum.

Given Daniels’ position as a long-haired Southern Rocker, and the fertile state of musical mixing in the 1970s, it is not surprising that he would have put some funk into “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”  It was probably just good business, and it works with the song structure.  Honestly, you’ve got to be impressed at it– funk is easy to fuse with rock, blues, or jazz, but with Appalachian Bluegrass?  That’s hard to pull off.  The tinny, nasally Scotch-Irish twang of Bluegrass is one of the culturally “whitest” genres there is, as we’ll see later on.  Yet Daniels threw some funk into it.

***

But here’s where it gets more complicated.  As a southerner, Daniels can make some jabs at his culture, but he is also viciously defensive of this culture when it is attacked by outsiders.  This is not unusual in itself; the tribal nature of most subcultures tends to allow self-mockery but defends against mockery by others.  Witness how many Jewish comedians make fun of their culture, or how many California rock bands dwell on the superficiality of their home state.  For that matter, as a cultural Mormon, I never miss an opportunity to attack that religion, but I will be the first to defend it when an uninformed outsider makes a quip about it.  Given the history and position of the South, and especially of the Appalachian South, it is not surprising that this region takes this “internal-mockery mixed with external-defense” incredibly seriously.

We see this in other songs by Daniels, which border on nationalism and jingoism.  “The South’s Gonna Do it Again,” seems to be a fairly lighthearted celebration of Southern Rockers, until you consider that the title is a play on the neo-confederate “The South Will Rise Again” mantra.  Later tunes such as “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” and his cover of “Our God is an Awesome God” firmly place Daniels on the right of the American political spectrum.  Add others’ pieces such as Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muscogee” Lynyrd Skynryd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way,” and we can see that while Southern musicians were happy to accept some elements of 1960s counterculture and diversity, they wished to do so on their own terms, rather than with the patronizing help of draft card burning druggies, a Canadian like Neal Young, or Gloria Steinem-styled feminists.

Charlie-Daniels

This ain’t no rag, it’s a flag!  Well, and a shirt.

This acceptance of outside elements (though not necessarily influence), combined with a more rigid defense of individual heritages is perhaps THE defining feature of cultural history in the 1970s, as Bruce Schulman has shown brilliantly in his history of the decade.  Political and legal advances of the mid-to-late 1960s insured more equal rights in the eyes of the law for disenfranchised demographics.  Non-white racial minorities such as blacks, Latinos, and American Indians gained the most, women began more tenuous steps to equal rights that would come to full fruition in the mid 70s, and even LGBT populations began a very long journey toward social and legal acceptance with the 1969 Stonewall riot.

But here’s the caveat: these movements toward de jure equality under the law in no way brought about de facto social integration; we never became a true melting pot, and MLK’s dream of  “All God’s children joining hands” never really took hold.  If anything, individual cultures became MORE insular and guarded of their identities.  Black Power, Red Power, Chicano activism, militant second-wave feminism, Harvey Milk’s San Francisco gay culture, they all said essentially the same thing: “Thanks to the 1960s, we are living under greater acceptance and freedom than ever before.  We’re going to use this freedom to keep to ourselves and strengthen our identities.”  One of the great films to come out of this era, The Godfather, was essentially an analogy for this complex process: after returning from a stint in the U.S. military, the most integrated, melting-pot, homogenized institution in America, Michael Corleone returns to his unique ethnic family identity (which in this case includes decapitating horses and shooting people in the eye).

Ok, so basically we’ve seen how all of this came together in the 1970s, and played into Daniels being in a position to funk up his bluegrass.  But there’s more to this story.  No amount of increased social, cultural, and musical heterogeny can explain this: Why does the DEVIL play funk?  In response to Lucifer’s throwing down of the funk gauntlet, the song’s hero Johnny pushes the musical genre even further toward idealized American decency in his response.  The key goes to major, and Daniels starts throwing out song title couplets that can be described as nothing less than “rural heartland” style– “Mama’s little baby loves shortening bread,” “chicken in the breadpan peckin’ out dough.”  In a sense, this is Johnny countering the Devil’s musical virtuosity with music of his “roots,” just as Daniel San, err, I mean, Ralph Macchio responded to the satanic metal shredder Steve Vai by quoting a Paganini etude in the awesomely bad 80s movie Crossroads.

However, I see this all as undeniably racialized– the Devil is playing black music, and Johnny is playing white music.  In order to see how profound this pairing of funk and the Devil Break is, we need to look at how white Anglo culture, and especially southern culture, has viewed black music over the course of a half millennium.  Time for some historical musicology.

***

Much more so than music forms like soul, blues, or jazz, the funk of the late 1960s and early 1970s was inseparable from Black Power and the aforementioned cultural entrenchment of the era.  One of the earliest funk songs, by James Brown, was the self-explanatory anthem, “Say it Loud– I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968).  “Jungle Boogie” reclaimed the white establishment’s dismissal of African music as primitive “jungle music,” complete with whoops, grunts, and Tarzan yells.  1970s films with black heros such as Shaft or Superfly had ultra funky soundtracks by Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield (no hyperlinks needed).  Hip-hop very quickly based its most important samples off of funk beats as well, and proudly owned its heavy percussion; as Chuck D. of Public Enemy shouted to kick in his historical anthem “Can’t Truss It,”  HERE COME THE DRUMS!

The most defining feature of funk may very well have been this beat.  It came indirectly from a  traditional big band swing beat, which though originally based upon the “bouncy” rhythm of 19th century marching pieces such as the Battle Hymn of the Republic, was thoroughly identified with jazz and blues by the 1920s.  Because of its association with black musicians like Ellington, Italian crooners like Sinatra, and Jewish composers like Gershwin, many saw the swing beat as music of the “other,” and subversive to WASP America (not to mention Nazi Germany) during the interwar period.  However, by the 1960s swing had become thoroughly sanitized and non-threatening, thanks to white crooners like Bobby Daren, Paul Anka, and worst of all, Pat Boone.

Funk– and the later hip-hop that sampled funk beats– put swing into a higher-gravity, plodding, half-time feel in which heavy, consistent bass and snare drums undercut the bouncing swing of a drum set’s ride cymbal or high hat.  (It’s easier to explain with example than with words; check out this very obvious switch from a traditional swing beat to a half-time funk/swing beat in Jurassic Five and Cut Chemist’s “Swingset.”)  As far as my observations can tell, funk’s “half-timing” of the swing beat started a popular music trend that rap metal (yuck) would do to fast-paced punk in the late 1990s, and that dubstep  (double yuck) would do to trance in the early 2010s.

Beyond the technical background of making a beat heavier and half-time (I think kids these days call it “dropping the bass”), the funk/hiphop beat made black music scary for whites again (it’s carnal!).  Here’s where things get really interesting.  For centuries, White Christian fears of other cultures’ music have been centered around percussion.

This percussophobia initially had less to do with blacks or Africans, and more to do with the great Other in early modern history, the Ottoman Empire.  From the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Battle of Vienna in 1683 and beyond, Muslim Turks represented everything that the Christian mind feared, and for good reason; they were in a position to destroy Christendom, and nearly did on occasion.  It is impossible to overstate how much fear of this Imperial Islam shaped Western European identity two centuries after the Crusades, and on the eve of the Age of Exploration.  Christopher Columbus actually promoted his western route across the Atlantic as a way for European commerce to reach East Asia while avoiding the Ottomans.  The Portuguese also expanded their trade routes while avoiding Anatolia, and then carrying out aggressive naval warfare against Muslims in the Indian Ocean.  Spaniards expelled Muslims from Iberia, forced Sephardic Jews to flee to Ottoman Turkey, and then thanked God for allowing them to reach America before Islam had.

England, the farthest-west European power, was even more wary of Ottoman Turks, and saw the empire’s despotism, slavery, and lascivious harems as diametrically opposed to English notions of individual freedom and prudence.  In promoting English colonization and spreading the Black Legend in the late 1500s, Richard Hakluyt the Younger called Spanish conquistadores “most Turkish” for their atrocities to Indians.  In satirically showing the barbarism of American slavery, Ben Franklin took the position of a Muslim.  Mozart, obviously no Englishman, nonetheless knew that the tragedy of a young woman kidnapped by Turkish pirates would be unusually poignant if she was a freedom-loving Englishwoman.  Even the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien built upon this English fear of percussive hordes coming from the southeast– the armies of Mordor included darker-skinned “southrons,” and Orcs loved their drums (in 5/4, according to Peter Jackson).

orc drums

Armies of Mordor, Take Five!

The Ottoman Empire also pioneered modern military music through their powerful, percussive Janissary Corps.  This trumpet, drum, and cymbal music was intended to psychologically weaken enemies with fear even before fighting started, and it worked.  Christian Europe feared the drums of war as an instrument of the Other.  Of course, later into the 19th century, emerging European nation-states from Austria to Prussia to Britain would adopt and “Christianize” Ottoman music styles, drums and all, into their own marching bands, but heavy percussion was still seen as militaristically barbaric.  Both early classical and folk music forms avoided the drums of war.  Also by this time, Americans had found another percussive other to fear, this one from Africa.

ottoman drums

The intersection of Afro-American slavery and music is fascinatingly complex.  I have neither the time nor the knowledge here to get into details, but it is worthwhile to examine briefly how different percussion forms persisted amongst colonial slaves in different parts of the Americas, and under different European powers.

Slaves working in two giant hubs of the sugar industry, Spanish Cuba and Portuguese Brazil, developed some of the world’s most rhythmically complex music styles.  The mambo, rhumba, son, cha cha, and the samba are some of the best known.  Drawing off of the group dynamics of African tribal music, they are polyrhythmic– with multiple intertwined beats varying and coinciding with one another.  Check out the beginning of Tito Puente’s “Master Timbalero” for some polyrhythms that border on overwhelming.   African Polyrhythms could also employ call-and-response, as this Samba piece by Sergio Mendes powerfully shows.

The music was also inseparable from the hellish phenomenon of the transatlantic slave trade.  Polyrhythms were  complex in the Americas precisely because people from hundreds of different African regions and tribes, each with their own percussive styles, were uprooted, stripped of nearly everything but musical memory, and thrown together.  Even more horrifying was the nature of sugar production specifically.  It was grown in disease-ridden swamps, the sharp edges of sugarcane cut slaves’ hands, and its processing into sugar and rum took place in some of America’s first factories– furnaces and mills called engenhos (literally “engines”) by the Portuguese.  Disease and toil ensured that the average slave only lasted for seven years in the engenho, and for this reason, slave populations rarely became self-sustaining.  Well into the 19th century, around 90% of all African slaves wound up on sugar plantations.  This also meant that, compared to North America, African rhythms were more readily preserved and retained.  Polyrhythms were born in hell.

plantation1a_360

It rots your teeth, too.

The dual-definition “clave” (both a rhythm and an instrument) is even more specifically linked to sugar slavery.  The instrument is a pair of wooden sticks hit together to produce a sharp, clicking sound that carries over the cacaphony of polyrhythms; it comes in right after the bass in the above-linked Tito Puente sample.  The clave rhythm– usually played by the clave instrument, but sometimes by a cowbell, the bell of a cymbal, or even handclaps, is a constant pattern that repeats throughout a mambo, rhumba, or son tune; its asymmetry is not dissimilar from the Bo Diddley Beat, or even a simple swing high hat.  All of these simple, yet slightly asymmetrical rhythms lay a foundation, a background for more beats to layer upon.  They are the “key” to keeping complex rhythms together, and in fact, “clave” is a Spanish term for “key.”  Furthermore, as Ned Sublette’s book on Cuban music shows, the original wood stick claves were probably made from wooden pegs used in the construction of ships, and would have been very easy for slaves to obtain.  The clave, then, was the key that held together the ships that took Africans to the Americas, the polyrhythms that these slaves created, and the cohesion and identity of hundreds of disparate groups thrown together to work to death in the engenhos.

Claves

It’s a pretty hefty responsibility for a couple of sticks.

Ok, but what do the complexities of polyrhythms and the brutality of sugar slavery have to do with the Devil playing funk in Georgia?  It turns out that, especially compared to Latin America, the English-speaking colonial world developed its percussophobia very early on, and in the American South.  In his autobiography To Be, or Not… To Bop, while discussing his own forays into Latin/swing fusion, Dizzy Gillespie made the observation that the reason that African-American music never developed the rhythmic complexity of Afro-Latin music was because “the English took our drums away, unlike the Spanish.”

Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie

The early years of Latin Jazz: Gillespie performing with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo in the late 1940s.  Pozo’s story did little to dissuade Percussophobia– he was obsessed with Voodoo, and would later be fatally shot in a drug deal.

In 1739, just south of Charleston, South Carolina, several dozen slaves (many born in Africa) managed to obtain weapons from an armory, killed their masters, and burned their plantations.  They then headed south along the Stono River toward the freedom of Spanish Florida, recruiting more escapees, killing whites in their path and marching to the sound of drums.  Eyewitnesses wrote of the horror of the sound of the drums.  Unfortunately for the Africans, they never made it to Florida; a colonial militia defeated them, and the survivors were executed.  The next year, the colonial assembly began passing a series of laws called the “Negro Acts” to ensure that such a rebellion would never happen again.  They cut down on the numbers of slaves imported directly from Africa.  They mandated a more rigidly trained colonial militia (this obsession over militias to prevent slave revolts also led to the Second Amendment about a half century later).  And, they banned the use of drums by slaves.  While slave revolts certainly continued for the next 100+ years, their frequency in North America was much less than that in Latin America.

But there’s more to the story than just a single event; it’s not as simple as “Southerners were scared of drums in slave revolts, and that’s why the devil plays funk!”  We’ve already seen that the English were unusually hostile to and fearful of Ottoman Muslims– much more so than the Spanish were– and this may have contributed to their percussophobia well before Stono.  Even a casual listener can tell that English folk music is less percussive than Spanish folk music.

Furthermore, as slave communities matured in the South following the Stono rebellion, the dozens of factors that historian Philip Morgan laid out in his book Slave Counterpoint probably resulted in a gradual simplification of African American music’s rhythms, to the point that they lost most of their polyrhythmic complexity.  Tobacco, indigo, cotton, and even rice production were less lethal than sugar, resulting in more stable, self-sustaining populations with a diminishing memory of African rhythms.  Especially in more northern slave regions such as Virginia, white overseers were a more constant presence than in the malaria-infested Caribbean, and subversive, secret drumming would have been difficult.  Quite simply, in the Anglo-American world (I’m equating England and the United States for the most part regarding views toward slavery and race), African slaves were Anglicized more quickly.

Once again, we can’t get away from contrasting this with the state of percussion and black culture in Latin America.  The militaristic beating of drums was instrumental (no pun intended) to slave revolts in Brazil as well.  In fact, the Brazilian dance/martial art style of Capoeira, which combined fighting with percussion, began in escaped slave communities called Quilombos that were essentially waging war upon Portuguese settlements through the 17th century.  The guy from Sepultura even wrote a song about it.

Slave dance

Here they come, Here they come, Slave Drums.

 Yet, despite the link between percussion and rebellion in the tropics, neither Spain nor Portugal ever enacted laws equivalent to South Carolina’s Negro Acts.  As brutal as the work in tropical sugar engenhos was, the Iberian world had more laws in place to serve as a sort of minimal “safety net” for slaves than the Anglo-American world did.  Due to a tradition of a stronger monarchy going back to King Alfonso X, as well as familiarity with the extensive body of Islamic and even Roman slave law, Spain’s medieval legal code, Las Siete Partidas, placed quite a few regulations on how slave owners could treat their slaves under the Spanish Empire.  Christians could not be enslaved, but slaves should convert afterward.  Slaves could marry, and their families were protected.  They were entitled to religious holidays, to save their own money, and to purchase their own freedom.  they could even testify in courts of law, which the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision so blatantly shot down.  Although I’ve not yet found any specifics on percussion regulations in the Spanish colonies, it does not make sense that the modern world’s first global bureaucratic empire, with laws such as this would have ever allowed its colonies to enact something as capricious as South Carolina’s all-out ban of percussion.  The hell of sugar spawned African polyrhythmic community, but Las Siete Partidas nurtured them.

Compared to the Ibero-Latin world, England had relatively little experience dealing with non-white, non-Christian peoples during the Middle Ages.  They never shared a peninsula with Muslims, they never saw themselves as heirs to the tradition of the Roman Empire, they caricatured Ottomans as almost cartoonish villains, and they moved very quickly away from slavery and toward a light feudalism that lauded the free, property-holding “yeoman farmer.”

Ironically, this resulted in a more hands-off slave policy as mandated from the English crown, and harsher, more reactionary laws on the level of individual colonies.  Las Siete Partidas saw slaves as humans– infidel, subjugated, captured, degraded, but still human.  England, the birthplace of modern capitalism, saw slaves as simply property, as chattel.  As Edmund Morgan has shown in American Slavery, American Freedom, the tradition of individual liberty that England pioneered and American took to extremes included the freedom for a master to do with slaves as he pleased, with little government interference.

This complex comparison shows, I think, why African American slave music in the States was less percussive.  It shows why even swing, while certainly providing a platform for potential polyrhythms (it does combined double-time ¾ over a 4/4 or 2/4 time signature), had much more in common with Anglo-American folk rhythms than mambo or Samba had with Iberian folk rhythms.  It shows why even swing and jazz had their origins in New Orleans, the port city with the most direct ties to the Latin world, and where slaves from the Caribbean would meet and dance in Congo Square.

At the same time, British fiddle reels in Appalachian communities began gestating into the folk bluegrass that would eventually lead to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”  Regarding bluegrass, I have probably been stressing the linear continuity of “English” culture into “American” culture too much in this essay, although we’ve seen that percussophobia was definitely continuous.  Despite the stereotype of Appalachia as being isolated, insular, and even xenophobic, I cannot stress enough the heterogeneous origins of bluegrass.  The original inhabitants of Appalachian frontier, perhaps mislabeled as “Scotch-Irish,” were coming from a centuries-long background as borderlanders, familiar with English, highland Scottish, and Irish cultures as David Hackett Fischer has shown.  And bluegrass drew upon even more diversity.  By the time its name was coined in the late 1930s, instruments included the Spanish guitar, the African banjo, the Mediterranean mandolin.  Though not as blatantly as other music forms, it also incorporated elements of black music–gospel, field hollers, rhythm and blues– as well.

What’s also fascinating is that somehow, as America became more connected technologically, artistically, and culturally in the 1920s, and as more people were exposed to more musical forms than ever before, narrowly regional Appalachian mountain music somehow took the title of “real American music.”  Somehow, this twangy music played by rural folks, with its multicultural origins hidden just enough, could give a white America at its racist and nativist zenith a comfortable view into a whitewashed past of American popular culture.  It is significant that Aaron Copland drew heavily off of Appalachian motifs and Shaker hymns while trying to force some sort of true American high musical form while Ellington, Gershwin, Goodman, and dozens of other jazz composers were creating high art from immeasurably more pluralistic influences, and receiving less acclaim for it.  It is also significant that even today, when we think of the musical genres of “Americana,” or even just simple “folk,” the associations are almost always white.

And of course, mountain folk music and its Country & Western successors remained percussophobic.  Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry banned drums completely from its inception in the 1920s, gradually allowed snare drums with brushes by the 1950s, and did not allow full drum sets until 1973, in part due to the rise in popularity of the outlaw country and southern rock that Charlie Daniels was a part of.  In a famous standoff, cantankerous Texas bandleader Bob Wills, who was fusing country and jazz into Western Swing as early as the 1930s, ignored the Opry’s drum ban, lifted the curtains on his drummer unexpectedly during a performance, and was not asked to return to the venue. Much rockabilly and early rock eschewed the heavy percussion of full drum sets.  Johnny Cash’s band used a minimal brushed snare drum/cymbal combo, letting the upright bass carry the pulsing beat, and modern traditionalists like Junior Brown carry on this approach.  

Indeed, we can even define the earliest rock’n’roll by whites like Carl Perkins and Elvis  by its use of full drum sets.  The genre’s critics were percussophobes who worried about white kids being subjected to the “savage beats” of bass drums and tomtoms, and thus put on an irreversible path toward promiscuous sex, satanism, and communism.  Even in my own personal experience, last year we had a funeral service for my grandfather in a Mormon chapel.  One of his longstanding wishes had always been that we have a Dixieland style musical rendition at his funeral, but when we brought out the instruments for this, we were informed that drums and trumpets (that barbaric Ottoman combination!) were forbidden in LDS chapels, because of their “less worshipful sound.”  We channelled the spirit of Bob Wills, and brought in the devil’s instruments anyway.

voodoo-devil-drums-movie-poster-1944-1020174192

And this brings us back to the 1970s.  We can see how in one sense, Charlie Daniels was pushing the limits by even playing a bluegrass-styled song with electric guitars and drum backings, let alone bringing in the 16-bar funk break.  But at the same time, we cannot escape the fact that this guy was tying the music of Black Power to the Devil.  The historical background of racially tinged percussophobia becomes even more profound when we take into account the overall state of the nation in the late 1970s.  Daniels, that long-haired  social conservative, released this song fifteen years after the Civil Rights Act, as the white South was still reeling from the trauma of forced integration, at the dawn of the Reagan revolution, and the rise of the sunbelt.  In Daniels’s and Johnny’s Georgia, multicultural, percussive funk loses to heartland bluegrass, and the White South most definitely rises again.

2 thoughts on “Play That Funky Music, Satan

  1. Those voodoo devil drums, virgins dancing to death, Le Sacre du Printemps by Stravinksky, same thing, ultra percussive, provoking riots in genteel Paris!

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