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From The Grateful Dead to Tom Waits: Bob Dylan's favourite songs about the Devil

“This is Theme Time Radio Hour, and there’s Hell to pay” — Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has a lot of accolades to his name. He’s a Nobel prize winner, a world-renowned songsmith and, you may not have known, one of the finest DJs radio has ever witnessed too. The freewheelin’ troubadour possesses a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of folk and country music. It was a fact that he put to the test during his famed 2006 run as the host of his radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour.

The first season of the Theme Time Radio Hour, hosted by Bob Dylan, ran from May 3, 2006, to April 18, 2007, on XM Satellite Radio for 50 shows in total. Rather than picking from various threads, each show had a distinct theme, ranging from ‘mother’ and ‘father’ to musical instruments and a double episode on ‘trains’. One particularly brilliant episode saw the singer pick out his favourite songs about the Devil. A devoted Christian in his later life, it’s a subject that Dylan connects with like no other, perhaps owing to his own emersion in the Devil’s music of rock ‘n’ roll.

Across the radio show, Dylan picked out several songs as odes to the Lucifer himself, noting their different connections to the man in charge of Hell. While some flirt with the Devil as part of a rock ‘n’ roll ritual, Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and The Devil Blues’ contains a far deeper connection, as Dylan shares: “According to legend, Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil, at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49.” It’s a tale as old as rock ‘n’ roll itself; an artist sells their soul for unfathomable skills, but this one just happens to be one most believed.

Throughout the show, there were plenty of other amazing songs about the Devil too. As well as The Louvin Brothers’ masterpiece ‘Satan Is Real’ there was also the classic Grateful Dead number ‘Friend of the Devil’. Dylan spent a whole tour with the jam kings in the summer of 1987 and has always shared his affections for the band. Picking this tune, he explained, “This song is a road story, a hitch-hiking journey of the early ’70s counterculture.”

There are more than a few nods to the past with Bob Wills, Elvis Presley and The Donays all getting mentions for their hellish hits. About the latter band, he said: “The Donays only made one record…you only have to make one, if it’s this good.” Another artist who Dylan’s holds in the highest regard is Skip James. The singer picks out James’ track ‘Devil Got My Woman’, saying, “Here’s another barn burner. This is my man, Skip James. Skip had a style that was celestially divine, sounded like it was coming from beyond the veil. Magic in the grooves. He had a style that was ghostly and otherworldly, rare and unusual, mysterious and vague. You won’t believe what you’ll hear.”

There are some more modern references too. As well as picking Tom Waits’ and his unfathomably good ‘Way Down in the Hole’ about which Dylan says: “Low on schmaltz and a real show-stopper, not pullin’ any punches,” he also selects Beck’s song ‘Devil’s Haircut’. Dylan dryly says of the song: “Beck says this song is a really simplistic metaphor for the evil of vanity. I just thought you could dance to it!”

Bob Dylan may well have taken to delivering sermons as part of his religious awakening in the eighties, and he may still hold the word of God in the highest regard, but there’s no doubting that Bob Dylan knows a thing or two about the Devil. Well, certainly his music, at least.

Bob Dylan’s favourite songs about the Devil:

  • ‘Me and The Devil Blues’ – Robert Johnson
  • ‘Satan Is Real’ – The Louvin Brothers
  • ‘Friend of the Devil’ – The Grateful Dead
  • ‘Devil In Disguise’ – Elvis Presley
  • ‘The Devil Ain’t Lazy’ – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys
  • ‘The Devil In Disguise’ – The Flying Burrito Brothers
  • ‘Suzanne Beware of the Devil’ – Dandy Livingstone
  • ‘Devil In His Heart’ – The Donays
  • ‘Must Have Been The Devil’ – Otis Spann
  • ‘Devil’s Hot Rod’ – Johnny Tyler
  • ‘Devil Got My Woman’ – Skip James
  • ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ – Count Basie
  • ‘Devil With A Blue Dress On’ – Shorty Long
  • ‘Devil’s Haircut’ – Beck
  • ‘Race With the Devil’ – Gene Vincent
  • ‘Way Down in the Hole’ – Tom Waits

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