On the Trail of a Folk-Song Ghost
In 1992, Johnny Cash was down and out in Branson, Missouri, the family-friendly Vegas on the Mississippi River. Branson is where washed-up performers go when they have enough of an audience to sell tickets but absolutely no ability to get radio play, combined with a declining ability to sell albums. It’s where an artist goes to watch their career slowly fizzle, one showcase at a time. Cash seems to have very few people in his corner in the music industry as he slid into his 50s. His longtime label, Columbia Records, dropped him in 1986. He hadn’t had a hit single in a decade — and he was the man with eight No. 1 albums between 1963-71. Cash was creatively adrift. His hands were tied, thanks to his commitments in Branson.
Meanwhile, he was writing a novel about the apostle Paul called Man in White — inspired by his deepening connection to Christianity — re-recording old songs, and writing a few new albums that didn’t blow anyone’s doors off. The stuff he was working on was only ringing the bells of people with an AARP membership—not a great way to sustain a musical legacy. Then, along came Rick Rubin.
When Rubin hooked up with Cash, he was a boy wonder (isn’t it fascinating how a 31-year-old man running his second record label can still be a boy wonder?). Rubin co-founded Def Jam Records, the most successful hip hop label in the world, from his NYU dorm room. He produced bands including the Beastie Boys, Danzig, the Geto Boys, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He had an “I do what I want” vibe about him. And now, Rubin wanted to revitalize a legend.
The thing that seemed to be missing from Johnny Cash’s music those days was Johnny Cash. Rubin’s idea was to have Cash record his classic songs in a stripped-down style. Rubin recorded just Cash and his guitar, without a lot of effects. The first track on the first American Recordings album that Cash and Rubin created was a murder ballad called “Delia’s Gone.”
Johnny Cash was an artist I resisted. The music of the 1960s that I learned about through my boomer parents focused on the school of rock where the Beatles, who elevated production and complicated arrangements to the highest pinnacle, were a religion. It was all about the big, fuzzy, echoing guitars of Led Zeppelin creating that stairway to heaven on which music production kept climbing to new and more dramatic heights. In part, Cash’s return in ’94 was contingent on my generation’s preference to make authenticity more about a posture than a sound. It created a filter around people who liked music and people who knew music—the holders versus the collectors, the tourists against the townies. Nirvana performing the murder ballad “In the Pines,” made famous by Leadbelly, on MTV Unplugged in 1994 felt like a response to the clarion call Cash and Rubin laid out with American Recordings and “Delia’s Gone.”
Around 2009, I was researching a book for which I read about Cash, going down a rabbit hole I later abandoned. I remember perusing the Unearthed box set, which collects the songs from his numerous sessions with Rubin in the American series. The feel of its roughly textured fabric casing, unique among collections usually held in paper containers with a high gloss sheen; the design was an obvious metaphor for the texture of the material within. That’s where I discovered “Delia’s Gone.” Cash’s original version of “Delia” from the ’60s was dark in the style of a classic murder ballad. The new lyrics he wrote and sang for the version done with Rubin took it to a gruesome, misogynistic place. “She was lowdown and trifling / And she was cold and mean / Kind of evil, make me want to / Grab my sub machine / Delia’s gone, one more round / Delia’s gone.”
Along with a video shot by Anton Corbijn that cast Kate Moss as Delia, that song was Cash’s calling card. The Man in Black embraced his reputation as an outlaw. In the video, Cash plays an unhinged man. He loathes women. It would take nothing more than a slight, real or imagined, to set him off. Every detail of his evil plan to kill Delia is meticulously planned and executed.
Despite Kate Moss, the Delia he sings about is real; she was shot and killed in cold blood. Songs about her have been around for over a hundred years. She’s the subject of a ballad, a poem set to music that tells a story. Ballads travel around, creating folklore, thanks to broadsheet printers who sold the songs and taught locals how to sing them. From there, a ballad travels with its singers, often roaming guitar-playing balladeers who took it from town to town, taking root in new places and among different voices who would shape it into something new. Murder ballads, a subset of the ballad tradition, recount deaths too haunting to be forgotten.
All the songs about Delia get her story wrong. That’s because all of them tell the story from the point of view of her killer. The girl who inspired those songs wasn’t like the character these men (and everyone who has recorded this song is a man) created. Delia wasn’t lowdown or trifling, and she was certainly not cold. Her death came not at the hands of a jealous lover but by a gunshot from a boy who thought she was mean to him.
The real Delia Green was a 14-year-old Black girl who lived in Savannah, Georgia. She was killed on Christmas night in 1900. Delia was at the home of Willie and Emma West for a party—she worked as a scrub girl in their house. They lived a block away from her in Yamacraw Village, a neighborhood named for a band of Native Americans who helped white settlers develop it. During Delia’s life, Yamacraw was transitioning to become a predominately Black neighborhood, as housing in Savannah, a city whose population was over half Black, became segregated.
Delia’s murder was an unplanned crime of passion. It started when Willie West gave Moses “Cooney” Houston, who was somewhere around 14, fifty cents to pick his gun up from the repair shop. During the Christmas party, that gun sat under a napkin on a table. The events of the night, as presented in court, conflicted. The Wests characterized the evening as a quiet, small group gathering hymns and Christmas songs around the piano. Houston’s lawyer, a white, recent law school graduate named Raiford Falligant, said the revelers were a rowdy group of 40 who were partying and getting wasted. Falligant told the court that the party sent Houston out after dinner to buy beer and whiskey. He called the West’s home a “rough house.” And Falligant asserted that Houston was “crazed” with drink for the first time in his life when he shot Delia. Things kicked off when Houston made it clear to everyone in earshot that he and Delia were having sex.
“My little wife is mad with me tonight,” Houston said, according to numerous witnesses at his trial, hinting that they knew each other carnally. “She does not hear me. She is not saying anything to me.” Turning to Delia, Houston said: “You don’t know how I love you.”
Houston’s comments only served to anger. She snapped back: “You son of a bitch. You have been going with me for four months. You know I am a lady.” My grandmother used to call my grandfather a son of a bitch. I think she is the only woman I’ve ever heard say that phrase out loud. It came out of her mouth like it was one word, dripping in venom. It sounded old-fashioned the first time I heard it. She was talking about my grandfather and a time he attacked her physically. Delia’s use of the curse struck me because it has always carried that feeling of betrayal that comes from intimate partner violence, the sting of feeling humiliated after you are assaulted by the person who supposedly loves you. When I pulled up an old newspaper clipping and read that precise phrase, I could imagine the sting Delia must have felt at that moment. I heard the bitterness in her tone, just as I heard it in my grandmother’s.
A book by a white, American male historian asserts that Delia’s reply is “sarcastic.” That feels like quite a leap in logic to me; it wasn’t how I heard her in my mind at all—although neither of us knows, being unable to listen to her words spoken aloud. But to assume she was mocking him rather than being indignant at violating her privacy and having her reputation questioned publicly is to look at the situation from a man’s view.
“That is a damn lie,” Houston replied. “You know I have had you as many times as I have fingers and toes.” Yeah, he said that he and Delia had sex at least 20 times after she made it clear he should keep his mouth shut. After their altercation, Houston got a warning about his behavior from their hosts. A few minutes later, he moved towards the door as if to leave. Then Houston stopped, grabbed the pistol, and shot Delia in the groin. We don’t know if he hit where he was aiming, but if he shot her in that location on purpose, it seems as if he were symbolically trying to destroy her by mutilating the source of her sexual power.
Then, Houston fled the scene of the crime. Willie West chased him down. West testified that Houston tried to shoot the gun at him four or five times during the chase, but it didn’t go off. Captured by West, Houston is said to have tried to bribe for his release with a promise of West five dollars. When the police patrolman arrived, Houston confessed to the murder on the spot. He didn’t appear to feel remorse about it. He told the patrolman he’d done it because Delia called him a son of a bitch. He said he’d do it again. Delia was taken to her mother’s house across the street, where a doctor was called. She held on for a few hours and died the next day.
While it’s no mystery how she died, there is a mysterious aspect to her story: no one knows who wrote this song.
The first version was collected sometime between 1906 and 1908 and printed in the second edition of the Journal of American Folklore by sociologist Howard W. Odum in 1911 as part of a collection of Black secular songs. Odum was born in Georgia and would spend most of his academic career at the University of North Carolina. There, he did extensive work in regional planning, race relations, and folk sociology. Odum was far ahead of the curve in advancing equality for Black Americans, focusing on how to increase opportunities in the South. The version of “Delia” Odom collected was only a fragment, and then the song was called “One More Rounder Gone.” It’s clear why a song about a crime perpetrated against a Black girl by a Black boy that captured a slice of Black culture would be a song Odum considered worth indexing. In a small blurb that accompanies a few stanzas for the music, Odum notes that the song’s “unusual feature lies in the fact that it applies to a girl.” However, he didn’t go the extra step of noting what music went with the lyrics. It was Black culture in general that interested Odum, not Delia’s story in particular.
The first recorded version of “One More Round Gone” was played and sung by Reese Du Pree for Okeh Records in 1924. Du Pree was from the vaudeville circuit and stumbled into a moment ahead of when labels were bullish on recording blues guitar records. The rounder in the song is the man who Delia runs off with, leaving the guy who loves her high and dry. The song’s narrator is a man who thought his girl was mistreating him, and it sounds like the voice of a man like Houston. He talks about the various ways he might kill the rounder, with whom she cheats. These lyrics, about a man who is “jealous of her as a dog is a bone,” invert the story’s genders and are lifted from the “Frankie & Johnny” ballad more than Delia Green. The conflation is with a song based on a Black couple, jealousy, cheating, and involves a murder just a few years earlier in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s another story in which a gunshot signals that a couple’s relationship is over, but with the genders reversed.
Du Pree claims a co-songwriting credit on the album, but the music may not be entirely original. Some song collectors think that the tune for Du Pree’s “One More Round Gone” is the same as that of “McKinley’s Gone/White House Blues,” a song about the 1901 assassination of President McKinley, who, as an abolitionist, wasn’t well-liked by whites in the South. That song, catchy as it was, might have been controversial for Blacks in the South to sing at the turn of the century. The events of “Delia” could have been transposed onto it instead, preserving the music minus the politics. The lyrics are more of a question mark because “Delia” wasn’t collected by many academics—at least, not until Robert Winslow Gordon.
Gordon was the founder of the Archive of American Folk Songs at the Library of Congress. He set out to uncover the lineage of “Delia” around 1928, but he didn’t publish his findings. All that is available in his archives is a letter he wrote to the Library detailing his research. The documents, including his interviews with Delia’s mother and the detective who investigated her murder, are lost. Also lost are the 28 versions of “Delia” Gordon collected. How tremendous a loss this is can’t be overstated. Though Gordon didn’t publish many scholarly analyses of his song collecting, he was a meticulous researcher. Thanks to him, we have the variants of numerous American folk ballads and the events that inspired them. With his research lost, the branches of the evolution of the “Delia” ballad and the root event that inspired it remained unknown to us for decades longer than they should have been.
A strain of the song was collected in the Bahamas in 1929 by Amelia Defries and published in her book The Fortunate Islands. The book is a racist tome documenting life in the Bahamas made up of cultural tourism by a white, upper-class British woman. However, it gives us the first idea that this American folk song traveled outside of the continental United States. Precisely how “Delia” crossed the Caribbean Sea is one of its most notable mysteries. One theory holds that Du Pree’s record made its way from swampy Florida, where bluesmen of his ilk tended to play in traveling shows, down to the Bahamas. Some 10,000 Bahamians left the country to move to Florida in the wake of Miami’s development, from 1900-20: one-fifth of the population. The newly developed city was a boon for immigrant workers. It would only take a few trips home to visit the family with some records in tow to start sowing the seeds of “Delia,” and return visits to bring recordings from Bahamian artists back to America.
The version collected in the Bahamas by Alan Lomax and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle in 1935 becomes the blueprint for how American musicians would record it from then on. Lomax, the son of legendary collector John Lomax, was 20 and on a summer break from the University of Texas. Barnicle, an NYU professor in her 40s, noted folklorist, suffragette, and activist for Black rights, proposed the trip and accompanied him. It covered areas of the Southeast United States. and the Bahamas. The author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, a close friend of Barnicle who was also in her 40s, joined them for parts of the trip but skipped the Bahamas after a series of arguments about race with Barnicle. Their roles were split up, with Lomax handling the recording while Barnicle took notes and provided her knowledge of ballads and folklore. He was there representing his father’s grant through the Library of Congress and in charge despite his relative youth. Barnicle was to keep extensive notes and provide knowledge about ballads and folklore, while Hurston acted as their guide to Black culture and how to conduct work and interviews in the culture. The group recorded over 200 songs during their trip.
In the Bahamas, Lomax and Barnicle recorded Nassau String Band performing “Cooney and Delia,” the title of which Lomax shortened to simply “Delia.” It would prove to be an impactful recording, starting with a change reflected in later songs. This song is where the rounder becomes round: “Delia’s gone, one more round, Delia’s gone.” Lomax made an announcement to the press about their trip and, in an interview, imagined that “Negro songs [in the Bahamas] are probably as nearly like those in Africa as any you can find in the Western Hemisphere.” Not this song.
Recordings of “Delia” reflect the song’s musical and lyrical evolution as the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s march on. It becomes more frequently recorded, which could mean it gained popularity or that its prominence in American folklore took on meaning for artists as the recording industry bloomed. Okeh, Decca, Paramount, RCA, and every tiny label trying to compete with them began churning out cheap records so people would have something to play on the hi-fis the companies wanted to sell. Since talking about music is like dancing about architecture, as the actor Martin Mull once infamously said, talking you through the minutia of who changed which song with the promise that “if you just heard the lyrics, you’d get it!” would be a waste of time. Here’s what you need to know: the “Delia” song leaped forward with a commercial recording by Chicago bandleader Jimmie Gordon in 1939, marking the first time anyone put it on a record as something other than a folk song. His ragtime, jazzy, bluesy, genre-defying rendition gave it a polish that turned it into some closer version of the music we know today. It got a massive lyrical overhaul in a performance recorded for the Library of Congress in 1940 by Blind Willie McTell. While all this recording was going down, two-song branches emerged with different lyrical and musical styles. One sprung from the “one more rounder” tree while the other was merging with a song called “All My Friends Are Gone,” and has a chorus about how Delia is “gone, she gone, oh yes she gone.” “Delia” was slowly splitting into two songs.
Pete Seeger recorded “Delia” in 1954, right in the throes of the American folk music revival. Looking back through the annals of history, it seems like the moment “Delia” became crystalized as an important song. Seeger’s massive influence as a folk musician and activist made his choice to perform it gave the now 50-plus years old ballad a revitalized sense of prominence and tied it to a political message. The year after Seeger released “Delia,” he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee for subversive behavior and reportedly being a Communist. It tied “Delia” to left-wing ideals, including racial equality. Josh White’s recording of “Delia” in 1955 reinforced the same message, although the Red Scare had much more impact on his career than Seeger’s. Let’s call that what it is: white privilege. However, both men who recorded the song are indebted to the Bahamian banjo player and singer “Blind Blake” Alphonso Higgs. It only takes one listen to his 1952 recording to know this is the version of the song you hear in playing your head when it’s mentioned, but, happily, Seeger acknowledges in his liner notes that his arrangement is indebted to Higgs.
What all the “Delia” songs have in common, so far, is that they’re peppy if it’s a sad song about a woman cheating on and leaving her man for some no-good guy. Why do the songs sound all so happy? Harry Belafonte came along in 1959 with a recording that changed that. Yes, you read that name correctly. I refer to the King of Calypso, one of the most successful Jamaican American pop stars in history and the fine singer of the “Banana Boat Song.” Belafonte was a pop star and a passionate activist for civil rights, and a student of folk music. His take on “Delia’s Gone” will bring anyone to their knees. Belafonte crafted it with his longtime arranger Robert De Cormier, who is billed as Bob Corman on many Belafonte records to avert McCarthyism’s gaze away from the singer after a youthful dalliance with Communism. The influence of Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit” is tangible on their record. It takes that same mournful emotion and evokes a swampy, oppressive Southern life for Black people and pours it into the song. The slow tempo, Belafonte’s clear and strong voice, and the musical arrangement that evokes a 20th-century caricature of plantation life merge to make a statement. The subtext gets across, perhaps for the first time, that the story of Delia is one about Black culture.
Throughout the rest of the ’50s and up until the ’90s, “Delia” is recorded by a who’s who of the folk, pop, rock, and country scenes: Pat Boone (again, yes really), Burl Ives (your guess is as good as mine as to why), Johnny Cash, the Kingston Trio (of course), Waylon Jennings, David Bromberg, Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, and many more. There’s an interplay in the selection between the two strands of the song, the Bahamian “one more round” version and the American “gone, gone, gone” arrangement woven into their selections that comes to a head with Bob Dylan’s 1993 recording of “Delia” that serves as a bookend to Cash’s 1994 rewrite of “Delia’s Gone.”
In opposition to the darkness and brutality of Cash’s ’94 “Delia,” which stems from the Bahamian tradition, Dylan recorded a version in the American tradition that’s more remorseful. Dylan and Cash were friends for several decades by that point and admirers of each other’s art for just a little longer. Cash picked out the songs and laid them down for his American Recordings project for a few years before it finally came out. I like to imagine Cash and Dylan chatting about it. Perhaps Dylan chose that version of “Delia” to put on World Gone Wrong specifically to play off Cash’s selected version. Maybe Dylan’s plan to record a second album of folk songs was what reminded Cash of “Delia’s Gone” and prompted him to look at it. I love to think of it as a cheeky nod of recognition between two great artists who were also great American folklore students.
We finally learn the story of Delia Green’s murder when John Garst, a chemistry professor at the University of Georgia, makes a late-life career pivot into song collecting. It took him all of two hours to uncover an old news report of her killing with the details of who did it, where she lived, and when it happened. From there, his information cascaded. Garst found the transcripts of the trial and the verdict. Then, he found the dialog shared between Delia and Houston. “He shot her because she called him a son of a bitch,” Garst wrote. Thanks to him, we finally knew Delia Green’s real story — one hundred years later, in 2000.
Back in 1900, Delia was dead, and Houston was on trial for killing her. Despite previously admitting guilt at the scene, Houston pleaded innocent in court. To remind the judge and jury that Delia wasn’t the only child in this crime, Houston showed up to the arraignment wearing short pants instead of trousers — most likely at the suggestion of his lawyer in hopes that his age would earn him some leniency on the charges. When asked about his wardrobe by the press, his lawyer said it was because his only pair of pants were at the cleaner. If Houston didn’t look 14 (his birth certificate was lost, so who knows), the short pants were a visual cue for the judge to look at him that way. He still got murder in the first.
At the trial, Willie and Emma West testified that Delia Green’s murder was committed without provocation. The Savannah Morning News reported that the couple called Houston’s crime cowardly and brutal. The Wests also confirmed to the jury that they were aware the two children were “more or less” intimate and had been for some months. When it was his turn to take the stand, Houston told the jury he was wrestling over Willie’s pistol with another boy, Eddie Cohen, and their roughhousing caused the gun to discharge, killing Delia. It was an accident. In response came a call for the Wests to testify again. They said Cohen wasn’t in their house when Houston fired on Delia. Once the authorities located Cohen, he swore before the solicitor general that he was at the party but left long before any shots were fired. Houston straight up lied in court.
When charged to render a verdict, the jury posed a question to the judge. They wanted to know what Houston’s sentence would be if they said he was guilty but recommended extreme mercy — they weren’t comfortable giving someone so young the death penalty. Judge Seabrook, who was presiding over the case, told them that life in prison was the most merciful sentence the law allowed. Ten minutes later, the jury returned; he was guilty, they said but deserved mercy.
The news coverage of Houston after the guilty verdict turned on a dime. In the Savannah Morning News, coverage noted that Houston thanked the judge after he was sentenced to prison and then “relieved of the necessity of further attendance in the courtroom, Houston pranced gaily out.” It is an unusual description, immediately followed by a speculative assertion that although he was “in charge of a bailiff,” meaning in handcuffs, that “had no effect on his temper.” Houston didn’t express enough remorse or react as expected. It sounds like he was in shock, which the reporter took to be…perhaps defiance? When asked by a deputy at the sheriff’s office how he liked his punishment, Houston reportedly said, “I don’t like it at all, but I guess I’ll have to stand it.” Understanding and accepting the dire consequences for this choice, made while he was drunk, had to be difficult. However, Houston soon got a reprieve.
After serving twelve and a half years of his sentence, Houston’s lawyer petitioned Georgia Governor John M. Slaton for clemency, including reports from prison guards and jury members in support of his release. There was a notation that his mother was now an infirm widow and, at age 56, unable to take care of herself and earn a living. It failed and was renewed two years later and sent to the Georgia Prison Commission. The pardon board approved his petition in 1913. The governor agreed and attributed his release to his young age at the time of the crime and his record of good behavior as a prisoner. Houston went free in 1917. Slaton received no political pushback for approving the release of a Black boy who admitted to murdering a Black girl. At least, none was noted in history. The trial made the Savannah Morning News’s front page, but it didn’t receive national media attention. Nor did Houston’s release.
Houston disappeared, reportedly moving to New York City. By then, there were already multiple Delia ballads circling the country. That’s how history gets miswritten. The dead don’t talk, and all we ever heard from Delia were a handful of sentences.
What was Delia’s life like? She was a Black girl who lived in Georgia 35 years after the Civil War ended. Her experience in life would have primarily been segregated. Savannah saw an influx of freed people after the Civil War, and along with the new inhabitants came two distinct cultures for whites and Blacks. She would have had limited opportunity for education — a public school for Black students didn’t even exist in Savannah until 1878. Delia’s lack of access to education and her community’s segregation meant that she would have had few job options and little reason to leave her neighborhood as she grew up. And she would have shopped in the Black business district of the city that existed before the Depression. She wouldn’t have been allowed to vote in the post-Reconstruction South and would have been subject to Jim Crow-era regulations and Black Codes. The papers don’t mention who made up the jury at her trial, but Georgia didn’t allow Blacks to serve as jurists back then. Whoever rendered the verdict on her murder got the ruling right, but they weren’t her peers.
Even though Delia’s murder happened when she was 14, the Savannah Morning News referred to her as a “woman” when they covered her story in 2020. That poor editorial decision echoes how many of the Delia song lyrics spoke about her, treating Delia like an experienced, grown woman. But she wasn’t. Delia was barely a teenage girl. The bodies of Black women have always been hyper-sexualized. A pamphlet from the National Organization for Women captures the essence of how we see Black women:
The myth that Black women were vessels for sexual desire was used to justify enslavement, rape, forced reproduction, and other forms of sexual coercion in the early onset of Western colonization …This same rhetoric continued after the abolishment of American slavery [and] a system of cultural imperialism such as Jim Crow continued to uplift the myth that Black women … were sexual objects and not fully fleshed human beings. Throughout the 20th century, hordes of Black women were sexually abused and assaulted by men of all races with the perpetrators of these crimes going largely unpunished.
Today, Black girls are perceived as more adult, less innocent, and less in need of protection than white girls, according to a report from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality. It’s not that different than it was for Delia back then.
For Delia, being a Black girl in the South meant that while the man who murdered her in cold blood for standing up for herself was convicted, the jury wanted to make sure he received extreme mercy. In folklore, it would mean that her story would become a cautionary tale for women to treat their men with respect or face severe consequences. The song has long reminded us that men are bigger, stronger, and when their egos are offended, they can be deadly.
Delia did get some of the respect due to her in 2020. The president and founder of the nonprofit Killer Blues Inc., Steve Salter, has been erecting headstones at the gravesites of forgotten bluesmen buried in unmarked graves around America. After a friend alerted him to Delia’s story, Salter decided to erect a monument for her in Savannah’s Laurel Grove Cemetery. She has been buried in an unmarked grave since 1901, with no existing record of where exactly her body was. Delia’s headstone went up in March of 2020. It is the 123rd headstone the nonprofit has purchased and the first for a muse to the blues.
There’s no rewriting a hundred years of songs that besmirched Delia’s name and got the story of her death wrong. But that headstone marks a change in which Delia Green leaves behind her role as the forgotten victim of a crime and becomes the powerful force that inspired a song that has become an important part of American history.