A Man’s Choices Are Always A Woman’s Fault

Marty Robbins’ Devil Woman: an exercise in shifting blame.

Devil Woman was first released in June 1962, written and performed by Marty Robbins, an American country artist. Even if you haven’t heard of Marty Robbins, you probably have heard his crooning before, either in Devil Woman or one of his other popular songs throughout the ’50s and ’60s.

I love Devil Woman, it’s extremely catchy, but my absolute favourite thing about the song is the way that the narrator is actively attempting to manipulate and guilt-trip the recipient of the song — the titular Devil Woman.

I don’t know anything about Marty Robbins’ inspiration for writing the song and, to be honest, I have very little interest in it — this is going to be a purely textual analysis of the song itself, focusing on the characters depicted to us within the narrative.

The version of the song in the Spotify link is Devil Woman from the 1996 compilation album, The Story of My Life: The Best of Marty Robbins 1952–1965.

The song Devil Woman by Marty Robbins is a serenade/break-up song. Directed at the titular Devil Woman, who is not given a name beyond this epithet, the unnamed singer explains to Devil Woman that his partner (presumed wife), Mary, has agreed to take him back, and therefore, he will not be continuing their entanglement.

Throughout this message, the singer blames the Devil Woman for the whole arrangement, saying that she is evil, implying her responsibility for the emotional distress of his wife, and even heavily implying that the Devil Woman was in some way holding him hostage.

These are, I would argue, the wild flailings of a man desperate to absolve himself of responsibility for any of his actions so long as there is a woman nearby he can blame them on.

(I’m using he/him pronouns for the singer and referring to him as a man because I’m assuming based off of Marty Robbins’ own gender, plus his Whole Deal™, that he was intended as one, but the singer’s gender is never explicitly stated, and I have no textual evidence to support the use of he/him pronouns versus another set beyond my personal preference.)

The lyrics go as follows:

I told Mary about us, I told her about our great sin
Mary cried and forgave me, and Mary took me back again
Said if I wanted my freedom, I could be free evermore
But I don’t want to be, and I don’t wanna see
Mary cry anymore

[CHORUS]
Oh, Devil Woman
Devil Woman, let go of me
Devil Woman, let me be
Leave me alone, I want to go home

Mary is waiting and weeping, down in our shack by the sea
Even after I’ve hurt her, Mary’s still in love with me
Devil Woman, it’s over, trapped no more by your charms
’Cause I don’t want to stay, I wanna get away
Woman, let go of my arm

[CHORUS]

Devil Woman, you’re evil, like the dark coral reef
Like the winds that bring high tides, you bring sorrow and grief
Made me ashamed to face Mary, barely had the strength to tell
Skies are not so black, Mary took me back
Mary has broken your spell

[CHORUS]

Running along by the seashore, running as fast as I can
Even the seagulls are happy, glad I’m coming home again
Never again will I ever cause another tear to fall
Down the beach I see what belongs to me
The one I love most of all

Oh, Devil Woman
Devil Woman, don’t follow me
Devil Woman, let me be
Leave me alone, I’m going back home

A photo of pale white photos strumming a guitar decorated with painted flowers.
Photo by Katherine Hanlon via Unsplash.

On the surface, we might take this song as the singer having in some way been trapped or taken advantage of by Devil Woman — certainly, he continuously presents her as his captor, repeatedly demands that she let go of him, and even goes so far as to imply she has, in varying ways, bewitched and ensorcelled him.

One could take his protests literally, where Mary is a witch to rival the talents of Devil Woman —while that would be, I have no doubt, an interesting and entertaining interpretation of the text, it is not the one I am presenting.

Instead, I would argue that the singer admits his culpability in the very first verse, but goes on to try to pin the responsibility for everything on Devil Woman and her actions as a way to avoid admitting his own guilt and accepting responsibility for his actions.

As we’re looking at a song, we can’t assume that the verses in the song are happening literally as they are presented to us, that the singer is narrating events as they are occurring. For example, I would not posit that he has to repeat himself as many times as he repeats the chorus — I think it more reasonable to assume that the chorus lines are words that were verbalised only once in the real interaction between these characters, or even more likely, that the chorus is simply a rephrase of and an emphasis of lines given within the verses.

If we accept this latter, we go from the singer asking Devil Woman to let go of him four times to only one time — and in fact, I would posit that the singer’s chorus is likely to have been selected specifically for the purpose of depicting Devil Woman as physically clingier than she truly was upon their parting, in line with how he tries to avoid responsibility throughout the text.

Let’s go into the line-by-line analysis.

I told Mary about us, I told her about our great sin

In the very first line, the singer states, explicitly, that this situation is the mutual responsibility of both himself and Devil Woman. He uses the collective pronoun “us” before calling their actions “our” great sin — the “great sin”, in this case, presumably referring to their affair, as it seems to be implied that the singer’s relationship with Devil Woman was in some way illicit.

His use of the phrase “great sin” does of course imply a great feeling of shame on his part, but more than that “sin” implies that there is some sort of religious infraction having occurred. This is why I would assume that Mary is the singer’s wife, and not merely another woman with whom he was previously romantically involved, as “sin” implies not just an act of infidelity, but the breaking of a vow or covenant, in this case with a spouse.

Mary cried and forgave me, and Mary took me back again

Here, we see the singer referencing his own culpability: for Mary to forgive him, that means he was previously at fault. He cannot actually be forgiven unless he has done something wrong.

More than the actual note that he’s being forgiven, I do feel that the phrasing of “Mary took me back” implies that Mary was overstepping the bounds of expectation by allowing him to return to her given his wrongs, and therefore also implies that the singer is at fault.

Said if I wanted my freedom, I could be free evermore
But I don’t want to be, and I don’t wanna see
Mary cry anymore

This is an interesting framing of marriage, unfortunately not an uncommon one, but what I do think it reveals is that although the singer has admitted his fault and that Mary has forgiven him, Mary has gone further than that.

She has told the singer he can return, but she has also told him — assuming he is telling the truth to Devil Woman, but I don’t see why he would lie about this — that she is willing to break off their union in order to allow him to be “free”.

Mary is waiting and weeping, down in our shack by the sea

I think an interesting thing about this song is the absence of Mary while the singer is addressing Devil Woman — the singer characterises Mary as “waiting” for his return and “weeping”, which might be something he’s saying because he genuinely believes it to be true (whether he holds an accurate idea of his wife, it’s impossible to say), or it might be something he’s saying specifically to hurt or offset Devil Woman.

He can say it because he’s left Mary at home, and his language previously — not just about Mary “waiting”, but also about taking him back, does in my view imply that he’s been living outside of the home he’d previously been with Mary, but more than that, one gets the impression that Mary doesn’t know where Devil Woman lives, and likely that she’s never met her personally.

The use of “Devil Woman” is insulting and dehumanising, of course, but more crucially, it’s likely not an epithet Devil Woman uses herself, and therefore is disguising her identity from Mary if Mary were to try to seek her out.

Even after I’ve hurt her, Mary’s still in love with me

Here the singer admits for the final time to having hurt Mary, and notes that Mary is still in love with him. I do find the phrasing interesting — “still in love with me” rhymes within the structure, so it makes sense for that reason, but I suppose it strikes me as a strangely passive way to characterise her affection for him. Not only is he describing her as being in love with him, making no mention of any reciprocal emotion on his part just yet beyond saying he doesn’t want to see her cry, “still in love with” implies she never stopped or paused in her affection for him.

What we can’t ascertain from the text is the precise nature of this affair: we can discern that there is infidelity going on, and we can infer that this is infidelity within a marriage, but we don’t have any information about how long this affair has been going on.

The extremity of Mary’s emotional reaction, especially her tears, could mean that the singer had been gone for an extended period of time — but the singer could, of course, be exaggerating (or is simply oversensitive to) how much Mary has cried, or Mary herself might just be a very emotional person. I do think that the text reads as though they’ve been separated for at least a few weeks, perhaps longer — I also think that the amount of vitriol the singer later shows for Devil Woman allows the reader to infer that their relationship has been ongoing for a while.

Because of the phrasing here of Mary “taking him back”, and equally the phrasing in the final verse of his “coming home”, I would interpret this to mean that the singer has, at least for a period of time, been living with Devil Woman, or at least not living at home with Mary, although we don’t know if Mary was previously aware of the affair (for example, if Mary previously discovered the singer’s infidelity and kicked him out for a period of time), or if the singer had just dropped off the map to live with this other woman, and then returned to Mary.

In the latter case, it would make sense for Mary to forgive whatever the singer confessed to, and it would make sense that she never had a pause in her affection for him, thinking he was just missing. She would just be grateful and glad to know he was alive!

In the former, though, if it was recently after the discovery, I don’t feel that Mary would immediately turn around and welcome back the singer — again, if he’d been gone for a period of time (especially having not been in contact with Mary to set her mind at ease as to his safety), it would make sense for her to fervently accept him back all at once.

Or, alternatively, it would make sense for Mary to cry and accept him back if he convinced her that his absence was entirely the fault of Devil Woman.

This would, in my opinion, explain the abrupt pivot between the singer’s acceptance of his own guilt and culpability in the first verse and first half of the second verse of the song versus his transition to blaming everything on Devil Woman and going out of his way to dehumanise her and depict her as monstrous or supernaturally manipulative in the next verses.

Devil Woman, it’s over, trapped no more by your charms
’Cause I don’t want to stay, I wanna get away
Woman, let go of my arm

Now begins my favourite part.

I love how abrupt the tonal shift is here — not only is this the first time the singer refers to the song’s recipient as Devil Woman (outside of the chorus, which as I said earlier, I am discounting), which does come off as an insulting, he’s suddenly jumping to finalities and shifting to blaming her.

“It’s over,” is final enough, but when he talks about being “trapped by her charms” — is the implication here, then, that he was “trapped” with Devil Woman because Mary wouldn’t take him back? Either he was “trapped” by her “charms”, implying in some way he feels unable to or unsafe about leaving her, or he didn’t want to leave her unless Mary took him back.

He frames his interactions with Devil Woman now in terms of escape, saying he wants to “get away”— a moment ago, Mary was offering his “freedom” to be with Devil Woman, but now he’s acting like his previous relationship with Devil Woman was something he was trapped in by her, as if in the first verse and the first half of the second he wasn’t explicitly talking about his own culpability and his and Devil Woman’s shared blame for the guilt.

I also think it’s telling of his expected dynamics between Mary and Devil Woman that he says, “Woman, let go of my arm” — this is not his insulting epithet which is nasty in itself, but whenever a man (assuming the singer is a man) calls someone “Woman” or “Lady” instead of by her name while issuing a command, it’s rarely coming from a place of respect, even if they weren’t calling her the Devil a moment ago.

I also think it’s telling that in this pivot to blaming Devil Woman, he goes from referencing their collective blame to belittling her like this.

I also find it interesting that he tells her to let go of his arm — to grasp hold of someone’s arm you’re normally just behind them or walking along beside them as they’re moving away from you, right? It obviously depends on the situation, but given that he talks about running away later on, it seems like it matches up.

I mentioned before that I feel like the singer makes this aspect part of the chorus in order to paint Devil Woman in a worse light, not because he actually had to tell her repeatedly to let him go, and part of the reason I think this is likely is because except for him saying for her to let go of his arm, which he repeats as phrasing (as in, he doesn’t tell her to let go of any other part of him or mention her physically blocking him in another way), all of his other accusations are to do with her in some way bewitching him.

Devil Woman, you’re evil, like the dark coral reef
Like the winds that bring high tides, you bring sorrow and grief

Why is Devil Woman suddenly evil?

In the first verse, it was all about her and the singer’s collective “great sin”, about their collective fault, and about how the singer hurt Mary: suddenly, she’s evil, like “the dark coral reef” (Is coral evil? Is the coral evil just because it’s being characterised as “dark”? Is he referring to how ships can be vulnerable to reef wrecks?), and also like… “winds”? And she brings “sorrow and grief”?

How? Where did any of this come from? A second ago it was all about how the singer hurt his wife by (presumably) breaking their marriage vows and cheating on her with Devil Woman — but all of a sudden, Devil Woman is evil, brings sorrow and grief, is ruining other people’s lives merely by existing.

Projection much?

He’s not being specific about any of this apparent “sorrow and grief”, nor giving any evidence for ways in which Devil Woman is “evil” by the way, except for his own unkind names for her.

Made me ashamed to face Mary, barely had the strength to tell
Skies are not so black, Mary took me back
Mary has broken your spell

And there it is!

“Made me ashamed to face Mary” — no, she didn’t. You made yourself ashamed to face Mary because you cheated on her. Devil Woman, one imagines, was not a part of your marriage covenant that you broke, or it wouldn’t have been an issue in the first place.

Devil Woman, based on the singer’s descriptions of his interactions with Mary, was no more present with his confrontation with Mary than Mary is present with him and Devil Woman now.

The singer is projecting his shame onto Devil Woman and putting her at fault for their having an affair together, and he’s presenting her as the artificer of his being ashamed for exactly the same reason he keeps pulling accusations of magic out of the air: he doesn’t want to face up to his own guilt or take responsibility for his choices.

If he’s about to drop Devil Woman as no longer relevant or important to him because his wife is taking him back, why does he need to treat her as a person worthy of respect? After all, it makes him look better for Mary if Devil Woman is a terrible witch who was holding him captive instead of another person he chose to have an affair with, right?

What is the point of an extra woman in your life if not to pin the blame on her?

He says he “barely had the strength to tell” Mary about their affair, but that he’s saying that could well be an admission of the half-truth: that he didn’t have the strength to actually own up to his faults honesty, and twisted his confession into blaming Devil Woman, just as he’s twisting his break-up with her now into calling her Satan.

“Mary took me back, Mary has broken your spell” — again, which is it?

Is the implication that he was under Devil Woman’s spell until Mary agreed to let him come home? Even though there was no mention of this spell in the first verse? Is it, in fact, that even when he’s admitting multiple people might be at fault now he’s changed his tone to denying his own culpability, that if a second person has to be at fault, it should be the woman he walked out on?

I still think “took me back” implies fault on behalf of the singer, but I do think he’s uncomfortable acknowledging that himself now that he’s adopted such a drastically different angle.

Running along by the seashore, running as fast as I can
Even the seagulls are happy, glad I’m coming home again

Okay, may I just say… what the fuck?

What the fuck are you talking about?

Okay, so the singer is running along the seashore — given that he was telling Devil Woman to let go of his arm a minute ago, perhaps it’s the case that he’s running physically away from her, whether that’s because he thinks she’s going to physically hold him back or, more likely, that he’s worried she might find out where he lives and Mary might discover she’s a human being. Perhaps he’s simply running for the joy of running after insulting his mistress and the sheer euphoria that comes as a result.

But what do you mean, the “seagulls are happy”?

I don’t think seagulls can be happy. They’re spite personified. Is he just bringing up seagulls because they happen to also be at the beach? Is he personifying the seagulls and how happy they must be for him because he knows no human being would respect anything about him? Perhaps the seagulls are in Mary’s thrall, as the singer was allegedly in Devil Woman’s?

I don’t have anything reasonable to say about the seagull line, its mere presence enrages me

Never again will I ever cause another tear to fall
Down the beach I see what belongs to me
The one I love most of all

And here we come back to “will I ever cause another tear to fall” — so it was your fault that you hurt Mary, then? You weren’t bewitched? Hm?

Although I do think it’s very telling that he refers to Mary (assuming he’s referring to Mary and not to their “shack by the sea”, as enticing as it sounds, or perhaps even the seagulls he’s certain are euphoric at his return) as “what belongs to me”. What belongs to you? Not who? What?

But also that he frames their dynamic as Mary belonging to him is interesting, and revealing in the same way him suddenly turning and calling Devil Woman “Woman,” in that denigrating fashion: it speaks to a lack of respect for her agency and her personhood, even though he says in the next line he loves her “most of all”, although given the way he treats Devil Woman, I suppose there’s not exactly an extreme shift in scale.

Oh, Devil Woman
Devil Woman, don’t follow me
Devil Woman, let me be
Leave me alone, I’m going back home

“Don’t follow me,” he says — is she following him? Is that why he’s running? Again, is he running because he’s worried about her physically stopping him, or does he just want to make sure Devil Woman and Mary don’t have a conversation?

Him telling her to leave him alone, for her to let him be, et cetera, all this work to present her as an aggressor or their dynamic as one-sided, a far cry from his behaviour in the first verse.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that there are different potential interpretations of the text — you might interpret his pivot in tone and accepting (or not accepting) blame as him becoming defensive when Devil Woman asks for him to stay (although no word is mentioned of anything she says, only accusations of her being “evil”).

To me, his accusations of vague bewitchment are pretty plainly a man grasping at straws to absolve himself of responsibility, and it’s my position that he’s an asshole, but I would welcome alternate readings!

Believe it or not, critical analyses of Marty Robbins’ songs are thinner on the ground than you might expect.

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He/him. Welsh author living in Ireland. Love comedy, photography, and fae. If you like 18th-century slowburn gay romance, I have a book: https://amzn.to/3hMnWDT

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