By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 16, 2005
After the devil went down to Georgia, it seems, he got censored in Prince William County.
In preparation for a guest appearance at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, the marching band at C.D. Hylton High School had a logical and seemingly innocuous idea: play a Georgia-themed song. They decided on "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," by the Charlie Daniels Band.
But early this month, a local newspaper, the Potomac News, published a letter by a Woodbridge resident who, after having seen the C.D. Hylton Bulldawg Marching Band perform the country-western hit at a football game, wondered how a song about the devil could be played at school events, because of the separation of church and state.
Fearing bad public reaction, Hylton's longtime band director, Dennis Brown, pulled the song from the playlist. "I was just being protective of my students. I didn't want any negative publicity for C.D. Hylton High School," he said.
But Brown's strategy backfired. The decision has created a furor, and even Charlie Daniels has weighed in.
"I am a Christian, and I don't write pro-devil songs. Most people seem to get it. It's a fun little song," Daniels said Friday in a telephone interview from Mokena, Ill., where he was scheduled to perform a concert. "I think it's a shame that the [marching band director] would yield to one piece of mail. If people find out that he can be manipulated that easily, he's going to have a hard way to go."
Christine Heeren, whose daughter Sandrine, 17, is the band's color guard captain, said many parents are frustrated that the song won't be performed but are unanimous in their respect for Brown as a thoughtful and popular band director.
"I am quite in a dilemma," she said. "The children were more disappointed because they spent a lot of hours in marching band camp. It takes a lot of patience and drilling."
Residents, alumni and parents have been fulminating in the Potomac News and on its Web site against censorship, the values of the media, the band director and, perhaps not surprisingly, the writer of the letter, Robert McLean. In the paper's online forum, people have written about a range of topics -- abortion, presidential politics, whether Daniels rocks or not-- that show how testy emotions have become.
To paraphrase from the song, fire has flown from their fingertips:
"God have mercy. How did we become a country full of weenies who give into the cranky nonsense of 1 voice?" one person tapped out on a computer. "I guess I need to go back to school. I thought the idea behind our country was that the majority ruled? You know, like the majority of people voted for the President's re-election and now the ruling party is knuckling under to every left wing nut out there? I give up!"
A person identified as Ticked Off Parent chimed in: "What's next? School Book Burnings because someone finds To Kill a Mockingbird offensive? Whoever started this should be banned from the school, NOT THE SONG!"
Another wrote in: "So what if the song does actually 'revolve' around Satan? Satan has its rightful place in history as does Women's suffrage, slavery, and every other subject bad or good!"
Daniels's song, which won a Grammy Award in 1979, is a tongue-in-cheek, tale about a devil heading down to Georgia and challenging a young man named Johnny to a fiddling duel. The stakes are high: If the devil plays a better tune, then he gets to keep Johnny's soul. But Johnny is too talented and beats the devil, winning a golden fiddle, and making Daniels's song a metaphor for the triumph of good over evil.
Brown said the Bulldawg Marching Band has been practicing "Devil" since early summer and one student even purchased an electric violin for the routine. The band played the song during the pregame show of the state football championship in 2003, he said, and no one complained.
As for that nettlesome letter writer, Robert McLean? The defense contractor, whose children are home-schooled, said he went to Hylton's football game just because he enjoys the sport. His letter, he said, was meant to start a philosophical debate, not to wreck any student's marching band experience. Besides, he said, he loves "Devil."
"It was one of the first 45s I had as a kid," he said.