Why does Bob Dylan like “Delia” – and how he rescued the song.

By Tony Attwood

Between 1960 and October 2012 Dylan played this song 12 times in public, and by general agreement during this time he discovered all the depths there are in this song after they had been destroyed by years and years of mistreatment.  I’ve included two Dylan versions here – this first from 1993 is to me the classic

Here are the lyrics – for anyone like me not 100% familiar with American slang of the era, the word “rounders” is, I believe, a word for drunkards, thieves, burglars, and others of ill-repute, bad or illegal behaviour.

Delia was a gambling girl, gambled all around,
Delia was a gambling girl, she laid her money down.
All the friends I ever had are gone.
Delia’s dear ol’ mother took a trip out West,
When she returned, little Delia gone to rest.
All the friends I ever had are gone.Delia’s daddy weeped, Delia’s momma moaned,
Wouldn’t have been so bad if the poor girl died at home.
All the friends I ever had are gone.Curtis’ looking high, Curtis’ looking low,
He shot poor Delia down with a cruel forty-four.
All the friends I ever had are gone.High up on the housetops, high as I can see,
Looking for them rounders, looking out for me.
All the friends I ever had are gone.Men in Atlanta, tryin’ to pass for white,
Delia’s in the graveyard, boys, six feet out of sight.
All the friends I ever had are gone.Judge says to Curtis, “What’s this noise about?”
“All about them rounders, Judge, tryin’ to cut me out.”
All the friends I ever had are gone.Curtis said to the judge, “What might be my fine?”
Judge says, “Poor boy, you got ninety-nine.”
All the friends I ever had are gone.

Curtis’ in the jail house, drinking from an old tin cup,
Delia’s in the graveyard, she ain’t gettin’ up.
All the friends I ever had are gone.

Delia, oh Delia, how can it be?
You loved all them rounders, never did love me.
All the friends I ever had are gone.

Delia, oh Delia, how can it be?
You wanted all them rounders, never had time for me.
All the friends I ever had are gone.


The most commonly held view is that the song is about Delia Green who was born in 1886 and killed aged 14.  The song appears in many forms but the most common is that she was shot dead on Christmas Day, 1900, by  youth named Houston, after the couple had had an argument, seemingly him boasting that he had been to bed with her many times, and she saying that was not so.  He served 12 years in prison and died in 1927.  Delia Green was buried in an unmarked grave.

Many songs that since emerged based on the story, including one famously by Blind Willie McTell “Delia” which retells the story in a different way.

But the real interest in the story and the song returned in the 1950s and as time went by the music lost all touch with the lyrics.  Pat Boone’s song shows this completely.

Johnny Cash also recorded a version

Now these songs have nothing much to do with Dylan’s song.  And yet Bob Dylan’s version is noted as “traditional” in the catalogue.  Here is the second Dylan version…

 

Such facts as we have of the real life story because of the work of folk song collectors who have recorded multiple versions of the song.  It seems that at first there was no mention of either protagonist’s age, thus removing a key element from the tale.

The earliest versions also have strong negative references to race, suggesting either the events were of no significance because of the colour of those involved.  Also most early versions are told from the man’s point of view, without any thought of the young woman who died, thus continuing to promote misogyny through the song.

Dylan however does something else – portraying Curtis as a victim of his own situation, as much as Delia.  An interesting approach.

It is a forgotten piece of Dylan’s performance history, but it should not be.  To me this is a wonderful rescuing of an old song that needed reworking.

What else is here?

An index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

There is an alphabetic index to the 550+ Dylan compositions reviewed on the site which you will find it here.  There are also 500+ other articles on different issues relating to Dylan.  The other subject areas are also shown at the top under the picture.

We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook which mostly relates to Bob Dylan today.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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1 Response to Why does Bob Dylan like “Delia” – and how he rescued the song.

  1. Robert Ford says:

    It is unfortunate that Bob Dylan’s abilities as an interpreter of cover songs have been ignored because of the greatness of his own body of work. These covers are a substantial part of his overall musical history. I believe that a dozen albums of his own back catalogue have included cover songs and his last three albums have been the brilliant Sinatra inspired covers albums ( actually six albums as ‘Triplicate’ was a triple album ). As these performances of ‘Delia’ demonstrate he has a long history of including cover songs when performing live and they have often been highlights of some of his most memorable concerts. His musical gifts, especially the greatness of his abilities as a singer, are mostly ignored by the critics…and under appreciated by many of his fans. I have been very fortunate indeed in being in the audience when he has performed such gems, often a ‘on the spur of the moment’ one off ( the 1993 performance above is one such performance ). A few spring to mind…’Something’, ‘One Irish Rover’, ‘Trail of the Buffalo’, ‘When did You leave Heaven’, ‘Barbara Allan’, ‘Lonesome Town’,’Autumn Leaves’ and ‘Pretty Peggy-O’. I also feel privileged that Bob Dylan has included such performances as the stunning duet with the great, sadly missed, Clydie King on ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ and the remarkable ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ on two of his recent historic releases.

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