Sunday, March 21, 2010

Delia's Gone, One More Round

On Christmas Eve 1900, Cooney Houston shot and killed Delia Green. If that isn’t tragic enough, they were both 14 years old. Their sad story would have been long forgotten, even in Yamacraw – the black neighborhood in the western end of Savannah, Georgia, where the killing took place – if it hadn’t been for a song. 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, and has been recorded by musical icons such as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

Date: December 24, 1900

Location:  Savannah, Georgia

Victim: Delia Green

Cause of Death:  Gunshot

Accused:  Moses "Cooney" Houston

"Delia" - Blind Willie McTell

"Delia's Gone" - Alphonso "Blind Blake" Higgs

"Delia's Gone" - Happy Traum (contemporary folk)


The facts of Delia Green’s murder, sketchy as they are, were uncovered by folklorist Robert Winslow Gordon – who collected 28 versions the murder song – and later by ballad expert John Garst. 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.

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. Delia and Cooney had been going together for several months and, though they both were only 14-years-old, the relationship was probably sexual. That night they were fighting; Cooney was very drunk and started teasing Delia. According to trial transcripts this is what transpired between them (as printed in The Rose and the Briar.)
Cooney: "My little wife is mad with me tonight. She does not hear me. She is not saying anything to me. (To Delia:) "You don't know how I love you."

This was followed by mutual cursing.

Delia: "You son of a bitch. You have been going with me for four months. You know I am a lady."

Cooney: "That is a damn lie. You know I have had you as many times as I have fingers and toes."

Delia: "You lie!"
Delia, angry at being characterized as Cooney’s wife, 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.

Trial: Spring 1901

Cooney Houston appeared in court wearing short pants; no doubt attempting to emphasize his youth. Georgia had no juvenile justice system in 1901 so Houston was tried as an adult. 

In court he told a different story than the one he told patrolman Williams. He claimed that Willie West had sent him to retrieve a pistol from the repair shop. He brought the pistol to the house and put it on the table under a napkin. Later he and a friend, Eddie Cohen, got into a friendly tussle over the gun and it went off accidently, killing Delia. Cohen testified that he was not there at the time of the murder and that he never struggled with Houston over the gun.

No one believed Cooney Huston’s story and the jury found him guilty but recommended mercy. Judge Paul F Seabrook sentenced him to life in prison instead of death.

Verdict:  Guilty

Moses "Cooney" Houston was paroled on October 15, 1913, by order of Governor John Slaton, after serving just over twelve years of his life sentence. He continued to have trouble with the law.  Allegedly, he moved to New York City where he died in 1927.

Meanwhile the song of Delia’s murder – authorship unknown – took on a life of its own. Each singer had his own version of the song but there are two major versions: “Delia” recorded by Georgia blues singer Blind Willie McTell in the 1920s, and “Delia’s Gone” recorded by “Blind Blake” Alphonso Blake Higgs (not to be confused with ragtime guitarist Blind Arthur Blake)

In McTell’s version the singer laments that “She's all I've got, is gone” and blames Delia’s demise on associating with gamblers. Higgs, who also introduced “Sloop John B.” to the United States, claimed authorship of “Delia’s Gone.” More likely it was introduced to the Bahama’s by sailors coming from Georgia. In any case Higgs version, with the memorable line “Delia’s gone, one more round, Delia’s gone” captured the imagination of American folk singers and was recorded by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and others.

In each version, the story deviates more from the facts. The killer is no longer Cooney, but Curly or Tony, and he shoots her more than once. The most extreme deviation from the facts occurs in Johnny Cash’s version where the killer ties Delia to a chair and shoots her with his “sub-mo-chine.”

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century
Wilentz, Sean, and Greil Marcus. The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Kodish, Debora G. Good Friends and Bad Enemies: Robert Winslow Gordon and the Study of American Folksong (Music in American Life). Urbana: University of Illinois, 1986.

Delia Green is buried in an unmarked grave in Laurel Grave Cemetery South, Savannah, GA

Ballad Lyrics (from Mudcat Cafe)


Anonymous says:
June 6, 2010 at 2:41 PM

thank you !!! says:
August 23, 2012 at 4:21 AM

ive been lookin for this song for twenty years only ever havn heard johny cashs vers i did know that a good song was in fact a trgedy recounted, just knowin that delia died such a long time almost before recognition of the songs makes it that. the other performers have enrichened the memorary of this girl lost in the aechives...

Unknown says:
March 19, 2017 at 7:43 PM

David Bromberg does a good version

TM says:
June 1, 2018 at 7:25 AM

Great version.

Unknown says:
March 2, 2019 at 12:43 PM

The first of the three recordings "Delia" is not Blind Willie McTell...

Robert Wilhelm says:
March 3, 2019 at 10:31 AM

Sorry, wrong link. It is correct now.

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