Tonight, the Halloween mixtape brings us to a song that I think I share every time I do this: “Delia’s Gone,” by Johnny Cash.
I’m not sure why the song holds such a grim fascination for me, honestly. In part, I suppose it’s because it’s a murder ballad, and a good one. It’s also Johnny Cash, who I do dearly love, and this was the song that turned me on to his work. Slapped me right in my punk rock loving face and got me to widen my musical scope. It’s also got that hint of the supernatural about it in the end. But I suppose I should let those who aren’t familiar with it hear the song before I go talking about that…
Yeah… That’s the stuff. The thing I really like about that ending is its ambiguity. Is Delia haunting her killer in his jail cell? Or has he just gone mad with guilt? The ghost explanation is more fun, of course, and definitely more Halloweenie. But I like the “mad with guilt” idea, too. That turns the whole song around. Because until then, it sounds like a proud confession. But after the haunting, if it’s imagined, it sounds like the desperate boasting of a man in denial.
Granted, the video kind of backs up that second reading. But I’m not sure Cash himself always saw the song that way. Because this version, from Cash’s 1994 comeback album American Recordings, is not the original. That comes from the 1962 album The Sound of Johnny Cash, where the lyrics (and the style) are a little different:
The denial of guilt reading could still stand on that one, I think, though there’s less evidence of it from the tone. But check out this performance of the song, with yet another variation on the lyrics, from a 1969 episode of The Johnny Cash Show:
Wow. I love that proud sardonic smile he gives when he’s talking about shooting her. I thought initially that he might turn that on its head by the time he’s hearing “the patter of Delia’s feet,” but no. Instead, this version seems unrepentant, justifying the murder (at least in the killer’s mind) with Delia’s infidelity. Fascinating, and maybe the ugliest version of the song I’ve heard.
I do love that Cash introduced it as, “our love song for tonight,” though. The man always did have a good sense of humor…