Friday, October 23, 2009

Blind Willie McTell To Johnny Cash: "Delia's Gone"

On Christmas Eve of the year 1900, according to several shadowy but semi-authenticated sources, a fourteen-year-old African-American girl named Delia Green was murdered by her boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Mose Houston (or Huston), in Savannah, GA for reasons that time has obscured. According to the same fragmentary records, young Houston was convicted of the murder but in an act of clemency unusual for the South at the time and likely due to his age was sentenced to life in prison. He was paroled some decades later and vanished into obscurity.

This incident may have - or may not have - been the inspiration of a song (or songs) that come down to us as "Delia's Gone" and that provide a fine example of what we call the folk process.

With some songs, ethnologists and musicologists have a fairly easy time tracing roots and branches. There is, for example, a direct and easily hearable connection between the 17th century Irish lament "The Bard of Armagh" and the grandaddy of all American cowboy songs, "The Streets of Laredo," because the melodies are virtually identical; it's more of a challenge to hear the connection between "Bard" and the old Basin Street blues number "St. James Infirmary," though nearly every discussion of the latter song says it's so. And thus it is with hundreds of the folk songs collected and categorized by giants of the field like Francis James Child and the redoubtable Lomax family.

Like many genuine songs that we now identify as traditional, no one knows exactly where or when people began to sing mournfully about the recently departed Delia. Not surprisingly, one version seems to have been in circulation in Atlanta and Charleston, SC (and please, in honor of Mike Askins, do not pronounce the "r" - it's "Chall-ston") around 1910, and a decade later a substantially different and more ambiguous arrangement pops up in New Orleans. The older one features lyrics similar to Johnny Cash's below - a "Tony shot his Delia/ On a Saturday night" - Cash changes it to first person "I"); the Louisiana number identifies Delia as either a gambler or trusted friend whose death is a cause for sorrow, rather more like Dylan's, and which Waylon Jennings shows cross-pollinates with another New Orleans number. Some experts believe that it was just the natural diversification of song variants that we can see in, say, "The Gypsy Laddie" becoming "Black Jack Davey" and finally morphing into the very different "Gyspy Rover" while others maintain that there were two different root songs - and maybe two different but equally unfortunate Delias.

Whatever the case, one of the really early recordings is from the Library of Congress recording of Blind Willie McTell (who inspired Britain's Ralph may to change his name to Ralph McTell, composer of "The Streets of London") from around 1933:

Now the Kingston Trio didn't venture too frequently into blues-flavored numbers, though when they did (think "Leave My Woman Alone" or "This Mornin', This Evenin' So Soon" or "The Wanderer") they could be very effective. The Trio's version separates the singer from responsibility for the girl's death, leaving him in a pain that can only be alleviated by drinking - "one more round." The instrumental accompaniment here features one of the stronger and more emphatic contributions of KT bassist Dean Reilly - there was an odd comfort and symmetry in knowing now that the last time that Nick, Bob, and John ever played together in August 2007 in Scottsdale that they were joined by a vigorous and beaming 80-year-old Dean:

The highest profile modern rendition of "Delia" belongs to Johnny Cash. There is a fine performance video of JC singing it in 1969 on his TV show, but I found this MTV-era video from the Americanh Recordings sessions of 1994 to be more satisfying - Just Johnny in fine voice accompanied only by his own guitar work, reminding us of what a fine rhythm player he was. JC's lyrics are bloodier than the Trio's and give another possible meaning to "one more round." This is Cash at his folkiest:

The above-mentioned Mike Askins mentioned how much he loved "Hee Haw" (me too, Mike), and Waylon Jennings' rendition of "Delia" is a reminder of how much good music the show featured. Jennings is clearly doing the New Orleans version, which is conflated with another very familiar N.O. classic:

Reggae/blues/rap/all-purpose superstar Wyclef Jean gives an island flavor to Cash's arrangement:

For a completely different take, our late friend Travis Edmondson and Bud Dashiell do that inimitable up-tempo Spanish-flavored guitar accompaniment that only they could pull off - Travis especially here with his rhythmic tapping of the sound board leaves you astonished - from one of Hefner's shows in the 60s:

Now I happen to be in the minority around here, I think, in that I really like Bob Dylan's singing when, as they say in sports, he stays within himself, which he does very effectively in folk blues numbers like this - rather closer to Willie McTell's:

This is one of those weeks when I really, really enjoy this Comparative Videos project - every version is a gem.

Addendum - 6/13/10

Here are some other interesting amateur versions - first, Bill Kostelec doing a fine rendition of the most traditional St. Louis bluesy version:

Warren H. Mayo presents NYC folk legend Happy Traum's arrangement - excellent guitar work here:

If videos of the deleted ones above become available again, I'll re-post them.

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