Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter told Relix that "Friend of the Devil" was the closest that the Grateful Dead ever came to creating "what may be called a classic song." Many Deadheads may disagree, but it's an interesting perspective from the man who penned the words for the majority of the Dead's most iconic pieces.
Whether or not "Friend of the Devil" is the sole "classic" Dead tune, it's hard to argue that the band tapped into the outlaw's zeitgeist to find a timeless song with this one. Dead chronicler extraordinaire David Dodd, for one, agrees. "No other Dead tune gets played quite so often," Dodd writes in Greatest Stories Ever Told.
Jerry Garcia and John Dawson of New Riders of the Purple Sage (NRPS) wrote the music for "Friend of the Devil." Hunter wrote the lyrics, but Dawson played a critical part in that area, as well.
In his online journal, Robert Hunter recounted writing the lyrics for "Friend of the Devil" in a single afternoon in Madrone Canyon. He actually created the song with the intent of playing it with NRPS, after the band had asked him to be their bassist. This is why he first unveiled the song to David Nelson and John Dawson in their home in Kentfield. At that point, Hunter explains, "The 'Sweet Anne Marie' verse which was later to become a bridge was only one of the verses, not yet a bridge."
Where things get really interesting in this story is where Hunter tells us that the chorus originally went:
I set out running but I take my time
It looks like water but it tastes like wine
If I get home before daylight
I just might get some sleep tonight
Notice how the line "A friend of the devil is a friend of mine" doesn't play into that chorus? This is where Dawson comes in.
After showing the guys the song, Hunter explains, the band went down to the kitchen for espresso. "We got to talking about the tune and John said the verses were nifty except for 'it looks like water but it tastes like wine,' which I had to admit fell flat. Suddenly Dawson's eyes lit up and he crowed "How about 'a friend of the devil is a friend of mine.' Bingo, not only the right line but a memorable title as well!
We ran back upstairs to Nelson's room and recorded the tune. I took the tape home and left it on the kitchen table. Next morning I heard earlybird Garcia (who hadn't been at the rehearsal - had a gig, you know) wanging away something familiar sounding on the peddle [sic] steel. Danged if it wasn't 'Friend of the Devil.' With a dandy bridge on the 'sweet Anne Marie' verse. He was not in the least apologetic about it. He'd played the tape, liked it, and faster than you can say dog my cats it was in the Grateful Dead repertoire."
It's interesting to wonder whether or not the song would still have become a staple if Dawson hadn't popped those lyrics. The line, "a friend of the devil is a friend of mine" isn't the only great thing about the song, but it's definitely a critical part.
Hunter dipped out of NRPS almost as fast he dipped in, and so the song became a Dead tune.
In regards to the song's lyrics, Dodd's indispensable Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics
makes an interesting connection between the "Friend of the Devil" line "trailed by twenty hounds" and the line "there's a hellhound on my trail" from Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail." It's not very likely that that is purely a coincidence, considering Hunter's musical scholarship and penchant for filling his lyrics with allusions to folk songs, blues, poetry, and mythology. The possible connection is doubly interesting because Johnson's legend goes that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads
to become a great bluesman. At the very least, it's an intriguing piece to the story told in the song.
Hunter also wrote that there was a fifth verse written for the song. It went:You can borrow from the Devil
You can borrow from a friend
But the Devil give you twenty
When your friend got only ten
The song seems to have its central character make it from Reno to Utah in one night on foot. A possible key to this seemingly impossible logistical feat is the fact that Reno was actually part of the Utah territory for one year at around 1860.
Reno was originally part of the Utah territory, which means that the line, "I got a wife in Reno baby, and one in Cherokee" is referring to the act of polygamy, which was present in Utah's early years.
"Friend of the Devil" was released on the 1970 album American Beauty. It was performed live for the first time at San Francisco's The Family Dog concert hall on February 28, 1970.
The song evolved over time. Garcia has stated that the version the band played in later years was inspired by Kenny Loggins' version of the song.
David Grisman, an old friend of Jerry Garcia's, contributed mandolin to the song. Dennis McNally's A Long Strange Trip: The Inside Story of the Grateful Dead
tells how this collaboration resulted from Garcia spotting his old pal while playing softball in Fairfax with the Jefferson Airplane. Grisman was brought in primarily to contribute to "Ripple
," but also ended up throwing in on "Friend of the Devil."
"Friend of the Devil" has been covered, live or in studio, by NRPS, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews Band, Mumford and Sons, and many others, including countless small town bands in corner bars all across America and beyond.