Why does Bob Dylan like “Friend of the Devil”?

By Tony Attwood

This article is part of a series on songs that Bob Dylan has confessed he likes in interviews, or self-evidently likes because they are among the small number of songs that Dylan has performed in concerts, but has not composed himself (the list of other titles in the series thus far appears at the end).   This piece is about “Friend of the Devil” with music by Jerry Garcia and John Dawson, with lyrics by Robert Hunter.  It appeared on the Grateful Dead’s album “American Beauty.”

We can immediately see some Dylan connections both in Grateful Dead and in Dylan’s own collaborator from time to time, Robert Hunter.

But I think the subject matter is the key – Dylan loves songs of the wanderer, the hobo, the lost soul on the run.  I’ve mentioned quite a few of these on this site a number of times – “Drifter’s Escape”, “One too many mornings”  It aint me babe,  Don’t think twice – perhaps the classic Dylan “song of leaving” with “Look out your window and I’ll be gone – you’re the reason I’m travelling on”.

Beyond the more famous examples we have songs like Someday Baby  which contains all the essential ingredients of the blues, and quite different there is Most likely you go your way.  A touch of disdain, but just a touch.

And of course there is the Restless Farewell…

Friend of the Devil is of course quite different from Restless Farewell – but the theme is the same – it is the need to move on – “I bid farewell and go down the road”.

Here are the lyrics of Friend of the Devil.

 I lit out from Reno, I was trailed by twenty hounds
Didn't get to sleep last night till the morning came around.

Set out running but I take my time
A friend of the devil is a friend of mine
If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight

Ran into the devil, babe, he loaned me twenty bills
I spent the night in Utah in a cave up in the hills.

Set out running but I take my time, a friend of the devil is a friend of mine,
If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight

I ran down to the levee but the devil caught me there
He took my twenty dollar bill and vanished in the air.

Set out running but I take my time
A friend of the devil is a friend of mine
If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight

Got two reasons why I cry away each lonely night,
The first ones named sweet Anne Marie, and she's my hearts delight

The second one is prison, babe, the sheriffs on my trail,
And if he catches up with me, I'll spend my life in jail.

Got a wife in Chino, babe, and one in Cherokee
The first one says she's got my child, but it don't look like me.

Set out running but I take my time,
A friend of the devil is a friend of mine,
If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight

The story is put around that the song is based on the affairs and quick departures of Rock Scully the Dead’s road manager.   And although, as I say, it is utterly different from Restless Farewell, the concept is the same – it all comes from the classic Irish folk song of the Parting Glass.

And the concept is captured at the end of that song…

Oh a false clock tries to tick out my time
To disgrace, distract, and bother me.
And the dirt of gossip blows into my face,
And the dust of rumors covers me.
But if the arrow is straight
And the point is slick,
It can pierce through dust no matter how thick.
So I'll make my stand
And remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn.

Musically “the Devil” has a descending bass, and we’ve noted on this site many times how Bob loves the ascending (Like a Rolling Stone) and descending (Sad Eyed Lady) bass lines.  And of course we must note that the song has become exceptionally well known, even by people who would normally not listen to the Dead.   As Robert Hunter said, “that was the closest we’ve come to what may be a classic song.”

It is also a song that was itself on the move from its conception being played at different tempos, and with different solos interspersed – a favourite occupation of Bob Dylan with his own songs.  Indeed even the lyrics change with Robert Hunter later adding a new verse…

"You can borrow from the Devil 
You can borrow from a friend
But the Devil will give you twenty
When your friend got only ten"

I am not saying that extra verse is a particularly profound addition, nor is it Hunter at his best, but it takes the song towards the Dylan concept of the ever-evolving music.

And in the midst of all this let us not forget Dylan’s own desire to keep on moving on, as per the Never Ending Tour.

There is also the fact that the song does suit the musical style that Bob created with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – in particular with the way the harmonies work.  It is a pure Petty approach that we can hear in the chorus of the version in the video above.

But above all it is a song that performers can do so many things with – if you take a moment to listen to Mumford and Sons handling the song, this becomes clear.  I can’t find it as a video, but it is on Spotify if you are interested.  And if you do make the trip there, do listen to the whole piece, even if you don’t take to the opening; it evolves.

My point is that the song lends itself to re-interpretation in so many ways – add that to the fact that the originators of the song were Bob’s mates, and well, yes it is fairly certain he would have a go. 

And there is one other thing that live performers love – the opening is so instantly recognisable…

Why does Dylan like these songs?

What else is here?

An index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

There is an alphabetic index to the 550+ Dylan compositions reviewed on the site which you will find it here.  There are also 500+ other articles on different issues relating to Dylan.  The other subject areas are also shown at the top under the picture.

We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook which mostly relates to Bob Dylan today.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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