SONG OF THE WEEK – THE DEVIL

“Jeremiah was a bullfrog.”  Of the hundreds of songs written by Hoyt Axton, those are the lyrics for which he is best known.  He was good singer and guitar player, but Hoyt is best remembered for the many great songs he wrote that became hits for others.  The “Jeremiah” lyrics are from “Joy to the World,” which was a huge number one hit for Three Dog Night, as was “Never Been to Spain.”  Way back in 1963, the Kingston Trio had a hit with Axton’s “Greenback Dollar.”  Steppenwolf’s versions of “Snow Blind Friend” and “The Pusher” were quite successful, the latter gaining popularity from its performance in the movie Easy Rider.  Former Beatle Ringo Starr popularized Axton’s “No-No Song.”  The list could, of course, go on and on.

Song writing came naturally to Hoyt.  His mother was Mae Boren Axton, who published over 200 songs, the most famous of which was Elvis Presley’s first big hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Some of the worst parts of the rock star lifestyle (though I wouldn’t really call him a rock star) also came naturally to Hoyt.  He was married four times and for many years he had a serious problem with the abuse of alcohol and cocaine.  Some of his best known songs are overtly anti-drug and were written after he had overcome those habits.  Steve Fromholz, whose “Texas Trilogy” was the Song of the Week earlier this year, overcame a cocaine dependency at about the same time as Hoyt did, and the two were good friends,  The worked together to write and record some of the music for Peter Fonda’s film, Outlaw Blues.

Hoyt Axton was husky man with a cherubic face and a marvelous baritone-bass voice.  He appeared in several movies and television shows playing a good old boy or someone’s father or both.  Examples are The Black StallionGremlinsDukes of HazzardBonanza and even I Dream of Jeanie.

I don ‘t know much about Hoyt Axton’s religious beliefs.  Oftentimes when a person overcomes a drug or alcohol problem, they do “get religion”; and there is some evidence of that in Hoyt’s writing.  It has been suggested that Jeremiah the Bullfrog is a reference to the prophet Jeremiah – but it isn’t.*

Still, at about that time he released a single with “Old Time Religion” on one side and “Farther Along” on the other.  We will get to this week’s song in a moment, but while on this subject we should consider the song “Epistle” that was on Hoyt’s 1971 album Country Anthem, the album that also includes “The Devil.”  I believe that song may illustrate Hoyt’s views of organized religion as he says:

To an orphan child dyin’ of hunger,
God is just a half a loaf of bread.
Rise up from your hundred dollar table,
Make sure your paroquet is fed.

And don’t forget to save a dime for Jesus
Don’t forget to send ’em all to war.
…..
And just in case our fathers have forgotten,
Maybe we should help them understand.
And to the church in Baltimore a question:
What have you done to ease the pain of man?

He expressed a similar sentiment in a more lighthearted way a few years later with his song “Rusty Old Halo.”

The real reason that I chose “The Devil” for Song of the Week is because of the first two lines:  “It’s been raining in the mountains and the river’s on the rise/And we cannot hardly reach the other side.”  My wife and daughter and grandson are in Portland, Oregon this week, and I’ve been following the weather reports from out there.  It has been raining, so I thought of this song.

Most of the song, though, does not concern the rain.  It is mostly about the Devil.  It gives us a very black and white view of a life where there is an evil force that can either harm us or we can rise above it.  Hoyt’s eyes were opened by a lovely lady who loved the Lord.  There you have it – the good and the bad; losers and winners; the Devil and the Lord.

The other thing about this song is that it has a really great rhythm.  I often think it should be sung a capella while slapping your palm on your leg to the beat (and Hoyt doesn’t do much more than that).

The Devil
By Hoyt Axton

It’s been rainin’ in the mountains and the river’s on the rise.
And we cannot hardly reach the other side.
And the devil, he’s in trouble; I can see it in his eyes.
If you don’t give him shelter, he won’t have no place to hide.

The devil deals in dyin’ and he travels in a hearse.
He treats you like a dog, now; he’d like to treat you worse.
But he don’t have the answers, an’ if he did, he’d lie.
The devil is a joker an’ he don’t want you alive.

An’ some you win, an’ some you lose,
An’ the winners all grin and the losers say:
“Deal the cards again.
“Won’t you deal the cards again.”

L.A.’s in California, Lord, I been there many times.
It is an education, to be sure.
I loved a lovely lady there, she opened up my eyes.
She ran a dancin’ school; it was a front, she loved the Lord.

It’s been rainin’ in the mountains and the river’s on the rise.
And we cannot hardly reach the other side.
And the devil, he’s in trouble; I can see it in his eyes.
If you don’t give him shelter, he’ll have no place to hide.

It’s been rainin’ in the mountains and the river’s on the rise.
And we cannot hardly reach the other side.
And the devil, he’s in trouble; I can see it in his eyes.
If you don’t give him shelter, he’ll have no place to hide.

Oh, it’s rainin’ in the mountains and the river’s on the rise.
And we cannot hardly reach the other side.
And the devil, he’s in trouble; I can see it in his eyes.
If you don’t give him shelter, he’ll have no place to hide.

The devil deals in dyin’ and he travels in a hearse.
He treats you like a dog, now; he’d like to treat you worse.
But he don’t have the answers, an’ if he did, he’d lie.
The devil is a joker an’ he don’t want you alive.

An’ some you win, an’ some you lose,
An’ the winners all grin and the losers say:
“Deal the cards again.
“Oh, won’t you deal the cards again.”

L.A.’s in California, Lord, I been there many times.
It is an education, to be sure.
I loved a lovely lady there, she opened up my eyes.
She ran a dancin’ school; it was a front, she loved the Lord.

It’s been rainin’ in the mountains and the river’s on the rise.
And we cannot hardly reach the other side.
And the devil, he’s in trouble; I can see it in his eyes.
If you don’t give him shelter, he’ll have no place to hide.

© Universal Music Publishing Group

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* Hoyt Axton explained in an interview with the Oregon News-Review: “Jeremiah was an expedient of the time. I had the chorus for three months. I took a drink of wine, leaned on the speaker, and said ‘Jeremiah was a bullfrog.’ It was meaningless. It was a temporary lyric. Before I could rewrite it, they cut it and it was a hit.”

6 thoughts on “SONG OF THE WEEK – THE DEVIL

  1. Once again you have reminded me of an old musical “friend” that I haven’t thought of in some time. While I don’t remember Steppenwolf’s version, I first heard Snow Blind Friend in the late sixties and immediately learned it from an Axton album and sang it into the seventies. You mentioned Hoyt’s battle with the demons of addiction( the name of my new band, by the way) and I always thought this song captured the sadness of addiction with great compassion. Another of his songs that I liked was Boney Fingers. Having cut my folk music teeth on the Kingston Trio, Greenback Dollar was an early addition to my song bag. As far as the family being in Oregon, I thought you might listen to Woody Guthrie’s Roll on Columbia. Lots of water in that one.

    • Hoyt Axton has been one of my favorites at least since My Griffin Is Gone. Many of the things he has written are told from the perspective of a character created for the song, so the use of the first person does not always refer to him, personally. I think, though, in songs like “The Devil” and “Epistle” he is expressing his own views. I believe, too, that “Snow Blind Friend” is based on an incident that involved a real friend of his.

      The Columbia River is one of those I was worried about when I was checking the Oregon weather. I know it has been pretty well flood-proofed, but Suzanne’s conference is at a hotel on an island in the middle of the river. By the way, I did mention “Roll On Columbia” in passing in a review I wrote in anticipation of Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday back in 2012 (http://ralstoncreekreview.com/book-review-woody-guthrie-american-radical/).

      I think the most appropriate Hoyt Axton song for this week when Cathy is out of town is “When the Morning Comes.” The context is different in my case than in Hoyt’s but the question remains of how am I going to find my shoes. I think it is time to do some housecleaning tomorrow. I hope you and the Demons are enjoying life.

      • As the song says, you’ll do alright alone. And I know you’ll do better when she gets back home. Hayden Island is dry, and we’re having a mild winter here, so rest your mind on that account.

        In re Hoyt Axton, I always liked his songs too. But apparently didn’t listen to them all that well, at least one time. When “Flash of Fire” came out I was used to the subtle wit and low-acid humor of some of his lyrics. I thought the words were, “I’m gonna go to heaven in a flashy car, with or without you…” I thought it could have been a wry and ironic song written about the big-hair and high-mileage faces tearfully emoting their love of the Lord (who seemed to need a lot of money) on the Trinity Broadcasting Network in its early days.

        • You get the prize for top psychic – Hayden Island is correct.

          Thinking about Hoyt Axton’s “subtle wit and low-acid humor” reminded me of another song he did on which he incorporates the wit and humor of others. There is a CD called Songs of the Civil War, by Various Artists (and I think that will be the name for my next band) which I have checked out of the library several times. Hoyt sings a great version of “Yellow Rose of Texas.” Of course it is the Civil War version (the song probably goes back to the 1830s, and there are many versions and associated legends), in which the last verse goes:

          “And now I’m going southward, for my heart is full of woe,
          I’m going back to Georgia, to find my Uncle Joe,
          You may talk about your Beauregard, and sing of Bobby Lee,
          But the gallant Hood of Texas played hell in Tennessee.”

          That verse became part of a marching song sung by the Texas Brigade after its part in the disastrous Confederate defeat at the Battle of Nashville. “Uncle Joe” was Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston; “Beauregard” was Confederate Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard; “Bobby Lee” was Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee; and ‘the gallant Hood” was Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood. Hood had been an impressive and aggressive (some say reckless) commander who advanced in the ranks until he found his level of incompetence, as predicted by the Peter Principle. As the war was finally ending, Hood, as commander of the Army of the West, decided to invade Tennessee, despite being counselled by Johnston and Beauregard that there was little strategic reason to do so and little chance of success. The whole campaign was a loss for the Confederates. Finally, at Nashville, Hood faced a Union force that outnumbered him nearly two to one. Hood made several poor decisions in that battle and the Confederate casualties outnumbered those of the Union by more than two to one. Hood lost more than 10% of his whole army, and was lucky to be able to retreat with what he had left. The Texans took it in with the wry humor that may have been all they really had left.

          If you would like, you can hear Hoyt’s version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xoPQqPJ7fbQ.

          One of the singers accompanying Hoyt on the song is John Hartford (who is standing behind Hoyt’s right shoulder). Many people know John’s song “Gentle on My Mind,” but he was best known as a truly consummate musician. He played not only guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and all that but I remember seeing him at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1982 and his performance included an amplified piece of plywood on which he clogged while playing the fiddle. It was impressive to a country boy like me.

  2. I’ve been having a good old time the past week or so listening to Hoyt Axton songs after you posted this. John Hartford and Linda Ronstadt appeared in a couple of them and it was good to revisit them, too. A couple of songs that rang bells past and present were “Geronimo’s Cadillac” and “Sometimes It’s Easy.”

    Geronimo’s Cadillac still has a transcendental effect going on for me. Between the words and the music it evokes mixed feelings of sadness and anger, not just for the subject matter but for the fact that poor treatment of others by low-consciousness societal juggernauts is present across history.

    The song, for me, still evokes a certain level of anger toward the wily predators who benefit from these machines, and those who are unwittingly taken in by them or consciously willing to remain silent and accept that other human beings are being run down while they’re along for the ride.

    Then comes the salvation of Sometimes It’s Easy:

    “I used to laugh a lot that’s why my face is crinkled
    That’s why my teeth are chipped by sandy wind
    Sometimes it’s easy sometimes it’s not so easy
    Sometimes I feel like I can’t go on.

    “Then I remember what really makes it easy
    Being with you when I’m singing my song
    Everybody got to have ’em some happy
    Everybody got to have ’em some happy
    Everybody got to have ’em some happy.

    “I used to laugh a lot that’s why my face is crinkled
    That’s why my teeth are chipped by sandy wind
    Sometimes it’s easy sometimes it’s not so easy
    Sometimes I feel like I can’t go on.

    “Then I remember what really makes it easy
    Being with you when I’m singing my song…”

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