Kris Kristofferson’s classic song To Beat The Devil makes hope and innocence seem wise, and cynicism and experience seem moronic.
Unlike other protest songs, or songs of social conscience, it convinces the listener that the most ironic, intelligent and worldly way to think is not to be weary and fatalistic, but to live with faith.
A young folksinger, the cliché of the guitar-carrying troubadour, walks into a bar in Nashville with “a stomach full of empty and a pocket full of dreams”, and a man buys him a beer and sings him a song.
The song tells him not to waste his time preaching to those who don’t want to hear his words, to avoid the pain and heartache of dedicating your life to writing and performing in the hope of communicating a message to humanity.
The song is characteristic of Kristofferson’s writing style at the time, and the song-within-a-song that gives his voice its trademark dimensionality.
Kristofferson’s songs are both simple and complex. They are still three cords and the truth, but there is a competing argument, a ballad-like conversation in many of them.
The talking blues vs the corny chorus-like verses give this song a woven texture, as if it is ten songs all in one.
The narrator tells us of a time when “loneliness was more than a state of mind”. That is, in a world of failure and ridicule, where isolation becomes a way of life rather than a passing inevitability.
When the next verse comes around, the narrator mirrors the words of the stranger and yet tells him he is not going to give up singing the truth, or trying to wake people up with a message.
“I’m not saying I beat the devil,” says Kristofferson, “but I drank his beer for nothing.”
The devil is obviously the stranger. And what gives this song power is that the voice of the devil is not evil. It’s not the whisperings of a maddened demon.
The devil’s words are sensible: You are just another voice among thousands, and many have come before you, and many will come after you.
But the hero of the song simply drinks his beer and listens, smiles and carries on his way.
This is a song about faith. About how being sensible and paying attention to the facts on the ground are meaningless when you are driven by a calling.
Kristofferson’s song succeeds where others fail, because the hero comes off wiser and more insightful than the devil, despite the stranger’s apparent battle-tested wisdom.