It’s almost unfair, the burden Johnny Cash, even in death, has to bear. I was flipping through an old music magazine and was reminded that way back in the year 1995 he won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album for his American Recordings record and that made me smile. I bet it made him smile, too.
There he stands in that long black coat beneath a washed out sky. His name emblazoned above him like it’s more than just a man’s name, it’s an icon. The guitar case looks like a desert pulpit and those two dogs that flank him look like Ignorance and Want. It’s one a hell of a cover.
This is the album that made him born anew, breathed life into a faded career, gave rise to the old myths. The myths had always been there. He shot a man in Reno. He did hard time. He was a mean sonofabitch. That album cover confirmed all. The opening number, a ghostly singing of the American folksong Delia underlined it in red. Even his denials seemed like the modesty of age.
One of the unique things about the American folksong is we know where many of them came from. Who was the cabin boy in the Golden Vanity? His name, if there was a cabin boy, has been lost to time. Not so in many of our new world folksongs. There’s little doubt that Frankie and Albert were in fact, Frankie Baker and Albert Britt of St. Louis. Frankie shot Albert on October 15, 1899 after quarreling over another woman. Albert died three days later in City Hospital. How many more years until the newspaper clippings are faded and gone? Tom Dooley was a confederate soldier out of North Carolina named Tom Dula who did indeed kill a Laura Foster in 1866. He was hanged two years later, at age 22, for the crime. His accomplice, Ann Melton, suffered a far worse fate as she deteriorated into syphilitic madness.
Delia too, lived and breathed, walked and talked. Her name was Delia Green from Savannah, Georgia. She was shot and killed by Moses Houston on Christmas Eve in the year 1900. The two had apparently been arguing publicly over how intimate their relationship really was. She called him a son of a bitch. He shot her in the gut. She died early Christmas morning. Houston served 12 1/2 years of a life sentence before being pardoned for the crime. Exhaustive research on the story has been done by John Garst, Robert Winslow Gordon and Sean Wilentz. A fine telling of the tale can be found in Wilentz and Greil Marcus’s book The Rose & the Briar.
There’s two main variants of the ballad in circulation. A sad lonesome number, usually just called Delia, where the song is sung from the perspective of a grieving lover who feels he’s lost everything. This seems to be the most popular of the two to cover these days and you can hear wonderful versions by Blind Willie McTell, Bob Dylan, David Johansen and Alastair Moock to name some favorites.
The Cash variant was born from the earliest recorded version of the song we have,dating back to 1924 by Reese Du Pree. He called it One More Rounder Gone and it can be found on Document’s Male Blues of the Twenties album. The song itself is at least twenty years older the Du Pree’s recorded version.
One More Rounder Gone, Reese Du Pree, 1924
The song really began to take shape though after it migrated to the Bahamas sometime in the late 1920s. Here it’s re-imagined as a calypso song and sung by Blind Blake Alphonso Higgs (not Arthur Blind Blake).
Blind Blake Alphonso, 1952
From there the song takes on a wicked life with covers coming from Josh White, The Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte, Happy Traum and Waylon Jennings. That’s not even a partial list. By 1960 it was completely gutted. How many years until the newspaper clippings are faded and gone? Sixty.
Delia’s Gone, Pat Boone, 1960
One of the odder entries in the Delia canon is this live version from San Francisco folk duo Bud & Travis from about 1959 or 1960. Recorded on the short lived Playboy’s Penthouse show staring Hugh Hefner you can hear Hefner giving a bizarre intro about mountain folk and chain gangs before Bud Dashiell takes over and conflates Frankie & Albert with Delia while making the timeless haha of better the woman shot than the man. Bud and his partner Travis, then furiously strum their way through a joyous version of the song.
Delia’s Gone, Bud & Travis, 1959-1960
Johnny first recorded the song in 1961 for Columbia Records. With him in the studio was Luther Perkins, Roy Nichols, Marshall Grant, Fluke Holland and Johnny Western. I haven’t heard every version of the song, but it’s the first version I’ve heard that changes the perspective from third person to first person. Johnny would record it again seven months later with the same band, but this time including the Glaser Brothers doing background vocals.
Delia’s Gone, Johnny Cash, 1962
In the years between Johnny’s Columbia and American recordings the song would be kept alive by a group as wide as Gary Stewart, Sonny Rollins, Ron Wood and Cordelia’s Dad to name a few. It was Johnny’s 1993 version though that captured the imagination.
Johnny plays up his murder ballad persona in a sepia-toned video staring supermodel Kate Bush as the doomed Delia and himself as the tortured killer. MTV pulled it after protests. Dirt being shoveled over Kate Wolf’s face is a little over the top. Critic, Chris Dickinson, went further and called it a “carny hook” playing to “gangstadom and the Appalachian dead-baby school of songwriting.” It’s hard to argue with that listening to Cash’s sly addition of a sub-machine gun.
So, 112 years after Delia Green was laid in her grave and almost 9 years after Johnny was laid in his I remain transfixed by the song, the story, the people who have sung it. Finally, though these people are actors, entertainers, singers, not murderers. Johnny Cash is no more fully this character than he is the cowboy on Ballads of the True West, a boy named Sue, or Paul of Tarsus in The Man in White. The song Delia, unlike the murder, isn’t right or wrong. It might make you think, laugh, or shudder, it might even win a Grammy, but it’s just a song and only allows for a small part of the whole.
Delia’s Gone, Johnny Cash, 1993