Bob Dylan, the Devil, and Tom Waits


by Matt Shedd

In his excellent liner notes to Tell Tale Signs, Larry "Ratso" Sloman quotes  Bob Dylan on religion:  “Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book. You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. Hank Williams singing ‘I Saw the Light’ or all the Luke the Drifter songs. That would be pretty close to my religion. The rabbis, priests, and ministers all do very well. But my belief system is more rugged and comes more from out of the old spiritual songs than from any of the established religious attempts at overcoming the devil" (Liner notes to Tell Tale Signs).* (For more on this theme of the sacred and secular in American song, see Madonna Hamel's tightly crafted and spot-on Easter post here on ND: "Singing Sacred in a Secular World.")

Dylan’s emphasis on the song over the ceremony certainly seems in keeping with the spirit of his recent work.   This is a seismic shift compared to some of his fiery on stage sermons, like the famous bootlegged Toronto performance of 1980. (These sermons came during a period in which he was undergoing a very public conversion, was frequently reading Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, and refused to play his non-religious work). But this shift back to a more unspecified position is not too surprising. Being on fire for God and the kingdom to come is an exhausting business, particularly for the riven soul of the great American musicians—see Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and virtually every blues and country musician.

I imagine that Dylan's brief credo elicits a wide range of responses from fans. Bob Dylan, like all popular artists, ends up becoming a contested space. This naturally happens when people like us engage with their work and the writings surrounding it, particularly in our days of instant information.  Amidst the sea of texts and opinions floating around us, we end up resisting certain readings, upholding others, and forging our own. This seems particularly true with fans who have a stake in Dylan’s personal religious beliefs or disbelief. A little research into the criticism about this period reveals that a good number of people still believe they have something to win if Dylan casts his religious lot with their own--whether they are religious Dylan fans or adamantly against religion in all forms.  

However, if people were looking for something a little more definitive about Dylan's beliefs, they were undoubtedly disappointed by the above-quoted statement. (But I'm sure many Hank Williams's fans were as thrilled as I was). But alongside his refusal to endorse or condemn any approach to religion, we find a certainty that there is a devil and that he should be resisted. According to this statement, the devil is just a fact for a person who lives in this world. We cannot escape him, but we can overcome him. 

So what does Dylan mean by the devil here?  Reading this with his more contemporary albums (dating from Time out of Mind to the present), I suspect it’s something more malevolent and persistent than the literal descriptions many of us grew up hearing about in church.  However I don't think it is a thoroughly secular and de-mythologized employment of the term either. 

When Dylan writes about "overcoming the devil," I think of Tom Waits's "Way Down in the Hole," a work which similarly resists specific religious or non-religious codifications. As I pointed out, all of these readings are necessarily up for debate. However, the reason I think we should look beyond dichotomies to appreciate artists like Dylan and Waits is that the experience can be much more rewarding.  Nightmares aren't literal, but they are very real. However, I don't think nightmares are purely metaphorical either.  There are certain things that call for the the artist to draw from everything at hand to allow us to engage with something indescribable through any other way than the work of art.

More to follow on Bob Dylan's relationship to the crossroads. 


Tidbits on Tom and the devil

This sometimes frightening and thoroughly strange clip is from Waits's 1988 film Big Time

"(You Gotta Keep the Devil) Way Down in the Hole" was performed by Waits and four other acts for intros to all 5 seasons of HBO's "The Wire." 
Tom Waits also played the devil in the 2009's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus 
Contact Matt via email:

Originally published at A Missing America:


*No Depression shout-out: My thanks to Al Steads and Scott Warmuth for pointing me in the right direction with the citation for this quotation, and helping to fix previous errors. This help makes me thankful, yet again, to be part of this knowledgeable music community.

Views: 1154

Tags: Bob Dylan, The Devil, Tom Waits

Comment by Richard Bacon on April 26, 2011 at 11:48pm

Do you think it is accidental or not without purpose that Bob...has opened every set this year - 2011  (even in Communist China!) - 70th birthday yr - with "Gonna Change My Way Of Thinkin"? Or more specifically with the new lyrics (sung with Mavis Staples on Bob's gospel covers album): "Jesus is coming, He's coming back to gather His jewels"

When Hank Williams "saw the light", his light was Jesus - Bob too? Oh yeah. God only knows, but my bet is placed.

Comment by Scott Warmuth on April 27, 2011 at 8:45am
From the devil is still in the details department: Dylan made a similar statement to Jon Pareles in the Times in 1997, but it is not the same as the quote above. The quote above does appear in the liner notes to Tell Tale Signs.
Comment by Al Steads on April 27, 2011 at 10:18am

In 1996 he told David Gates of Newsweek

"Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like "Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain" or "I Saw the Light" – that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are mylexicon. I believe the songs". 

In a September 28, 1997 interview appearing in The New York Times, Dylan said, "Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayerbook . . . All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from 'Let Me Rest on That Peaceful Mountain' to 'Keep on the Sunny Side.' You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing 'I Saw the Light.' I've seen the light, too."

I wandered so aimless life filled with sin
I wouldn't let my dear saviour in
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night
Praise the Lord I saw the [G] light.

Comment by Bill Russell on April 29, 2011 at 4:16am
When I watched the Tom Waits video I was immediately reminded of a song from a Gospel Awards Show on BET featuring the Rance Allen Group singing "(There's Something About) The Name Jesus".  The form and delivery are surprisingly similar and both as powerful.  A quick Google search should bring up a Rance Allen clip.  Thanks for the TW clip.
Comment by Hector Calavera on April 29, 2011 at 4:24am
Nice job on the article....a very interesting read, indeed.....but I'm not touching this one.
Comment by Rudyjeep on April 29, 2011 at 5:43am

Great article as usual Matt.  This line struck me -" if people were looking for something a little more definitive about Dylan's beliefs,they were undoubtedly disappointed by the above-quoted statement."

I'm not sure you can say anything definitive about Dylan as other posters have shared in the "Lay off Dylan" thread.  He's a chameleon and you can never be sure if what he says is about faith, convenience or effect.  I've always leaned toward effect.  

As for Tom Waits, I think "Misery's the River of the World" may be revealing as to his attitudes...

God builds a church
The devil builds a chapel
Like the thistles that are growing
'round the trunk of a tree
All the good in the world
You can put inside a thimble
And you still have room for you and me
Comment by John McCluskey on April 29, 2011 at 8:10am
"just undergone" not "just underwent"
Comment by Madonna Hamel on April 29, 2011 at 9:12am
Great insights, Matt. I'll definitely follow everything you write. I appreciate the reference, as well. Sid Griffin, author and musician (Shelter From the Storm) talked about working on a new book of Dylan's 'jesus years'. Hopefully, there will be some respect for the believer in Dylan. I can't claim to have ever had a conversion experience, but I have gratefully stopped responding to it in others with sarcasm or embarrassment. I'm even a little envious- and I certainly understand the burden that comes with going against the grain. (How did MLK get all those agnostic-atheist hipsters to join the movement? I don't think anyone was laughing at his faith and rigorous practice. ) Being a fan of Waits and a performance artist in an earlier incarnation I used "Big Time" as an example of effective multidisciplinary project in a lecture in my grad piece. As for "all the good in the world you can put inside a thimble...) I still believe there's more good in the world than bad . I just know, as a journalist sitting in a story meeting, 'if it bleeds, it lads' and all the good, nice, 'boring' grassroots kindnesses just don't get the press they deserve. So we forget how skewed our view of the proportions of good to bad really are in the world. However, I believe Waits plays characters and this is perhaps coming from the mouth of his hapless misanthrope. As for the devil: so many in recovery would see the devil as our personal demons- addictions, hungry ghosts, supercharged diversions. And they are very real when having to face them down- not just mythologies. I try to balance my perspective between the metaphoric and the concrete. For a while I was all into symbols and signs, but they became new ways , sometimes, of obfiscating very real and essential elements of the material world. Artists who work for me reflect that balance. I keep going back to Rosanne Cash's words in the doc I did for CBC. writing songs we need to remember to add furniture- because we don't feel 'themes' and 'ideas' we feel things. See her essay in the New York Times called Ear of the Beholder for more.'s also in the 2009 edition of Best Essays on Music...
Comment by Studebaker Hoch on April 29, 2011 at 9:27am
I never could figure out if Waits was playing the DEVIL or was he playing GOD in Dr Parnassus
Comment by michael allen on April 29, 2011 at 8:06pm
it's just the roots. Sacred/Secular, Divine /Profane. It's American Blues. Always a contest.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.