Running From the Devil: The Mythic Journey in Contemporary Folk Music

One of the primary themes that runs through folklore, fairy tales and mythology is that of a journey: the Hero/Heroine sets on a physical mission, achieves a goal, and often makes their way back home.

Along the way, there is often psychological/spiritual growth; the protagonist leaves as a metaphorical child, and returns having matured to adulthood (or as Jungians like to call it, individuated).

Snow White and Hansel and Gretel find themselves in the deep, dark woods. Vaslisa the Beautiful likewise must enter into the forest to confront the terrible, amazing witch, Baba Yaga. And Parzival, the Grail seeker and the primary influence for Joseph Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey (which in turn has become a recipe for everything from Star Wars to all things Pixar) involves multiple voyages, from the woods to the city, from the King Arthur’s round table to the Wasteland, and from the Wasteland to the Grail.

There are definitely overlaps between folk tales and folk music as well, and this doesn’t only apply to traditional folk songs. This attempt to make the make modern folkloric songs continues to this day, and when it resonates, it can spread like wild fire.

An example of this can be seen in the oft covered song, Friend of the Devil. Chased by the devil, our narrator flees to a “cave up in the hills”, caves themselves often being used as a metaphor for the Underworld, and the womb/tomb aspect of the Mother Goddess.

Unfortunately, our narrator is also being hunted by the Sheriff, and haunted by his love for a woman. He plaintively longs for home, stating in the chorus that if he get homes before daylight, he might finally get some rest.

Here are the lyrics for Friend of the Devil, music by Jerry Garcia & John Dawson, with lyrics by Grateful Dead collaborator, the poet Robert C. Hunter, from the band’s 1970 release, American Beauty:

*

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 runnin’ 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 runnin’ 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 runnin’ 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 one’s named Sweet Anne Marie, and she’s my hearts delight.
The second one is prison, babe, the sheriff’s 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 runnin’ 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.

You can borrow from the Devil
You can borrow from a friend
But the Devil’ll give you twenty
When your friend got only ten
(These final verses are from Robert C. Hunter’s version on his LP, Jack O’Roses)

*

What’s the take-away?

Deals with the Devil, the hounds of hell, hiding in a cave, a sheriff on the hunt, and a lover that is miles away all add up to a hell of folktale, all centered on a person on the run. It may not be a hero’s journey, but it’s still a hell of a ride.

Or to quote lyricist Robert Hunter, “that was the closest we’ve come to what may be a classic song.”

gratefuldead_001-smaller
Grateful Dead, circa 1994, Rock Hall Library and Archive

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