Johnny Cash/Genius.com

Delia, oh, Delia
Delia all my life
If I hadn’t shot poor Delia
I’d have had her for my wife…

Delia’s Gone, An American Murder Ballad

Penned by Karl Silbersdorf and Dick Toops, this American murder ballad was originally recorded by Johnny Cash in 1962 for his The Sound of Johnny Cash album.

The country legend re-recorded it in 1994, on the Rick Rubin produced American Recordings LP. He explained why he chose to redo the song:

“‘Delia’s Gone’ is the Devil’s deed of daring,” said Cash. “We were talking about ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ – and ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’ – and I said, ‘I want another song like that.’ So Rick and I started listening and we found ‘Delia’s Gone.’ We realised I had recorded it in the ’60s, but not the way I’ve recorded it on American, and that I should work it up and do it over. So we started working on it and we did it and we came up with this version.”

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The Murder of Delia Green

Sketchy as they are, the facts of Delia Green’s murder were uncovered by folklorist Robert Winslow Gordon. To note, he collected 28 versions the murder song, and later by ballad expert John Garst. In addition, they traced the location to Yamacraw, a black section of Savannah, Georgia and the date to December 24, 1900 (at the tail end of the 19th Century.) From newspaper accounts and trial transcripts, they reconstructed the events of that night.

On Christmas Eve 1900, Cooney Houston shot and killed Delia Green. If that isn’t tragic enough, they were both 14 years old.

If it hadn’t been for a song, their sad story would have been long forgotten, even in Yamacraw.

The Ballad of Delia’s murder traveled from Georgia to the Bahamas, then back to the States during the folk boom of the 1950s. Though the facts have been altered along the way, Delia’s story has been sung by generations of folk singers. In addition, it has been recorded by musical icons such as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

The Story: Delia Green and Cooney Houston

Delia Green and Moses “Cooney” Houston were at a Christmas Eve party at the home of Willie West, where Delia worked as a scrub girl. They had been going together for several months. Though they both were only 14-years-old, the relationship was probably sexual. That night, they were fighting. Very drunk, Cooney started teasing Delia. According to trial transcripts, this is what transpired between them.

Angry at being characterized as Cooney’s wife, Delia called him a son of a bitch, an epithet that carried much more weight in 1900 than it does today. At this point, Willie West told Cooney to leave. As he was approaching the door, Cooney pulled out a pistol and shot Delia in the groin.

Cooney fled the scene, but Willie West chased after and caught him. West turned him over to police patrolman J. T. Williams who later testified that Cooney confessed to shooting Delia because she called him a son of a bitch. He said he shot her and he would do it again.

Verdict: Guilty

Paroled on October 15, 1913, by order of Governor John Slaton, Moses “Cooney” Houston served just over twelve years of his life sentence. Furthermore, he continued to have trouble with the law.  Allegedly, he moved to New York City where he died in 1927.

A depiction of “Delia’s Gone”/Dorkforty.wordpress.com

Cash recorded several versions over his lifetime. It is the nature of traditional ballads that the lyrics can change each time they are sung, provided the underlying story is unchanged.

Watch Johnny Cash’s “Delia’s Gone”.

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