By: Jake Adam York
Much more interesting, entertaining, and challenging, as well as much more difficult, is the performance of a song in a way that makes audible that distance between past and present, that makes history audible—a cover in which the fine musical textures, rather than the broad recycling gesture, constitute a more complex relationship, one that requires a somewhat deeper consideration of attachment and secession.
In such moments, the cover is both a more total static and a filter that can modulate that noise. The performance repeats the form of the original and rides over it to enable us to hear or prevent us from hearing the past in ways that are to be as meaningful as entertaining. To listen to such a cover is to read for both fidelity and disregard and to puzzle the value of the amplification or diminishment of a song’s historic qualities.
BR5-49 has approximated this only once, to my knowledge, in the live recording of “Knoxville Girl” that appears on the band’s Live From Roberts EP.
The song is traditional, stretching back, in some version, to the 17th century, where it’s rooted in a poem, a broadside ballad entitled “The Cruel Miller.” The poem drifted through the British Isles, where the story was known as, among other things, the Oxford Girl and the Wexford Girl, and then emigrated to America where it settled in the Appalachians and became known as “Knoxville Girl” in the mountains of east Tennessee. The song has now been recorded many times—by Nick Cave and Elvis Costello, among others—but the most important recording is the one on the Louvin Brothers’ Tragic Songs of Life (1956) because this is, very likely, the recording that brought the song to wider attention and saved it from obscurity. It’s to this recording BR5-49’s responds.
The Louvin Brothers’ version, though markedly different from the original broadside poem—the song’s much shorter—presents the traditional circuit of the murder ballad from pleasant beginning to sudden, uncontrollable violence, to remorse and punishment. The song’s narrator begins by introducing the title character:
I met a little girl in Knoxville,
A town we all know well,
And every Sunday evening,
Out in her home I’d dwell.
Quickly, however, the narrator has, on an evening walk, struck this “fair girl down” and beaten her to death. He throws her body in the river then returns home where, bloody and aching, he dreams of hell. He wakes to be arrested and carried to jail where, at last, he expresses remorse for the killing in a way that gives the poem a moralistic cant, as if it’s meant to be a cautionary tale. There are twelve verses in all, executed in waltz time and sung in an unwavering melody that is, if nothing else, disturbingly sweet.
The BR5-49 version is, following the Louvins’, a waltz, and singers Gary Bennett and Chuck Mead harmonize like Charlie and Ira Louvin, in a hauntingly sweet melody. This fact alone makes the BR5-49 cover unique among the covers of this particular tune, for no one else provides a double-male harmony, and this is the auditory gesture that indicates the source of the tune.
This version, though, is not, as many of BR5-49’s covers, an exact repetition. This version is about twenty seconds shorter, having subtracted a number of verses. Whether the steel guitar solo is the cause of the emendation or only its witness, the BR5-49 version pauses between the stanza in which the narrator kills the girl and the stanza in which he throws her body into the river, managing to heighten the song’s emotional tension.
After we’re told that he “only beat her more / Until the ground around her / Within her blood did flow,” the steel guitar takes the melody for a full 40 seconds, during which we can, if we know the Louvins’ version, almost hear the stanzas in which the body is disposed and the narrator returns home. These verses seem suppressed, and it’s a kind of relief, a respite from violence that allows the story to drown in melody.
However, when the harmony returns, the narrator is just throwing the body into the stream, and what seemed a relief now reads as a serious pause, a catching of breath between the murder and the cleanup. To me, anyway, this version is even more violent because it provides a space in which emotion and drama can build.
You can listen to and enjoy this tune even if you don’t know it’s a cover, and I think you can still read the tune in a similar way. However, the subtractions, which I read as momentary suppressions and dramatic enactions, and which make the song read more quickly, can only be measured against the earlier version. If we hear the Louvins straining to throw the murdered woman into the river as BR5-49’s Don Herron translates vocal into string melody, the newer version acquires a depth it could not achieve on its own.
Perhaps it’s unfair to ask a band as young as BR5-49, a band so recently arrived though clearly hoping to sound much older, to achieve something so difficult that so few performers seem capable of one, much less a stream of such songs. But BR5-49 arrived at an interesting time in country music, when roots music and classic country seemed to be resurging in a swell that made possible new ways of thinking about history in and through music.
The release that had the most serious impact, on my thinking anyway, was Johnny Cash’s 1994 American Recordings, a disc that signaled both a serious change in Cash’s career and the materialization of a major and long-brewing change in American music.
The importance of the disc to Cash’s career cannot be overstated. Though Cash released at least one record a year from 1957 to 1988, in the latter years of the 1980s and the early years of the 1990s, many of these records were compilations or anthologies, best-of records, the kind of records that, in many cases, announce the slowing of a musical talent, the end of a career. Cash had, in the very early 90s, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and given a Grammy Legend Award—again, recognitions that usually read as valedictions.
The release of American Recordings, however, seemed to turn all that around. As Cash himself allows in his autobiography (Cash, by Johnny Cash), he found himself, in the early 90s, ready to leave record companies behind for good, having watched his status at Mercury/Polygram slowly deteriorate. Rick Rubin convinced Cash to try again, with him, and the result was an album that brought Cash many new fans, that opened larger concert venues, addressed his music to young listeners, and earned him Rolling Stone’s Best Country Artist and Comeback of the Year awards in 1995. The album’s success galvanized the relationship between Cash and Rick Rubin, and that made for a cartload of amazing music in the nine years before Cash died in 2003. The albums are still emerging from the vaults.
Cash’s tunes possessed the radios of my childhood—tinny AM channels squealing through the metronome of my grandparents’ percolator, and the knobless pick-up, dual-band console in my father’s truck—and I thought I knew Johnny Cash. I still listened to the Sun recordings and the legendary prison concerts of the late 60s, but I, too, thought Cash was winding down.
The American label, the inverted American flag tucked into the pre-release advertisement, made me curious at first, then covetous. Rubin’s American label descended from Def American, the venture that published the Beastie Boys and death-metal’s Slayer, artists whose music I loved as well. To see a silver-gelatin Cash advertised under American’s star-spangled banner begged the question: How does Cash sound under a label most often associated with aggressive youth music?
The disc’s first track, “Delia’s Gone,” provided the answer. The song begins:
Delia, O Delia,
Delia all my life,
If I hadn’t’ve shot poor Delia,
I’d’ve had her for my wife.
One more round,
This is the territory of the American murder ballad, an arresting crossing of tenderness and violence. The song is, nevertheless, not all finesse. The second verse turns directly toward what can only be a calculated murder:
I went up to Memphis
And I met Delia there,
Found her in her parlor
And I tied her to her chair.
One more round,
This seems much more disturbing than the fantastic, biblical apocalypse that was Slayer’s stock in trade and, in its own way, more energetic than the Beastie Boys’ old-school-rap stichomythia. That Rubin should produce and release this at the very moment the label was changing from Def American, whose name signaled its allegiance to youth music with one foot on the street, to American, whose name suggests a broader range of interest and address, is telling: Cash is all that has come before deepened.
The deepening is structured on the play between the contemporary consciousness, the contemporary directness of the song, and the song’s traditional musical and narrative roots. Much of this can be heard directly, as the song returns from increasingly bolder narration with increasingly contemporary vocabulary in the verses to the stable, traditional foot of the balladic refrain. So, the third verse goes:
She was low-down and trifling,
She was cold and mean,
Kind of evil make me want
To grab my submachine.
One more round,
The arrival of the submachine is startling. Before, much of the song’s lexical surface is studiously antique, from the vocative “O Delia” to the identification of her room as her “parlor” and the characterization of her as “trifling,” and perhaps even the Memphis locale, which somehow always seems to evoke the past. The submachine gun, though, is decidedly contemporary, a creature of gangsta rap, not country music. Its appearance, however, has only time enough to ripple, for the refrain quickly re-establishes cool tradition.
This tension between the audibly contemporary and the sound of age manifests a much deeper play with the long and tangled history of an American ballad, known either as “Delia,” “Little Delia” or “Delia’s Gone,” a tension embedded in Cash’s 1994 performance.
The song or class of songs is based on an actual lover’s quarrel that ended in murder on Christmas Day, 1900, in Savannah, Georgia. One version was recorded in 1935 in the Bahamas, another in Atlanta as early as 1940.
Variations would later be offered by Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Bobby Short, Bob Dylan, and many others. Some, following Blind Willie McTell, tell a whole story, from initial slight to the final sentencing of the killing lover, while others visit only episodes, providing a few verses to suggest the rest. All instances agree that Delia’s lover shot her dead, though not why—some suggest she cursed him, some that she left him, some that she was a whore and he was her pimp—and all carry some version of a refrain that’s something like “Delia’s gone / One more round / Delia’s gone” or “I shoot / One more rounder’s gone.”
Even Cash did the song once before, for the 1962 album The Sound of Johnny Cash. Even though it’s different from the 1994 version, considered against the field, even the ‘62 approach is oddball. It is highly episodic, offering comparatively little in the way of narrative. But what’s more conspicuous is that what we have records, solely, the killer’s point of view. The Nassau String Band version, recorded in 1935, and the Blind Willie McTell version, recorded in 1949, allow us to hear the killer speak at times, but the narrator is omniscient, able to visit any of the characters involved. Cash’s 1962 version, by contrast, is severely contracted, and its fragmented narration produces another kind of limit that may reflect the partiality of the killer’s account.
The 1962 version doesn’t answer any of the narrative questions we might have—like why Delia’s lover killed her—so the shift of person doesn’t expand the story in any particular way. Instead, it transposes the Delia tragedy into the shapes of the Appalachian murder ballad. As in the Louvin Brothers’ “Knoxville Girl,” the murder occurs early in the song—in the second verse:
First time I shot her,
Shot her in the side.
Hard to watch her suffer,
But with the second shot she died.
In the third and fourth verses, the narrator suggests that Delia was favored by many others and that he had decided he didn’t want to marry her, but these things are quickly forgotten as the song makes its inexorable progress to the jail where it will meditate on punishment and remorse, staples of the Appalachian murder ballad. So, the sixth and seventh verse enter despair more deeply:
But Jailer, O Jailer
Jailer, I can’t sleep
Cause all around my bedside
I hear the patter of Delia’s feet
One more time
So you give me my hammer
I’ll drag the ball and chain
And every rock I bust
I seem to ring out Delia’s name
One more round
The song performs, perhaps overperforms, its sorrow, as the refrain is repeated and punctuated with further calls to Delia as the tune fades, suggesting perpetual self-punishment like the castigation that closes the Louvins’ “Knoxville Girl.”
The 1994 recording is much bolder and departs further from the body of Delia recordings, entering the persona of the killer much more fully and escaping the orbit of the traditional murder ballad, refusing to occupy the offices of remorse with such sincerity.
Here, again, Cash provides the verse in which the narrator shoots Delia in the side, then again, and, as in the 1962 version, we move quickly to the jail. This time, however, Cash omits the further characterizations of Delia as a woman with many callers or a potential ball-and-chain, so the violence is even more inexplicable. He still hears the patter of Delia’s feet, but remorse is far from mind as the song closes:
So if you’re woman’s devilish,
You can let her run,
Or you can bring her down
And do her like Delia got done.
Some of the longer versions show the killer in his cell “drinking from a silver cup” (McTell), suggesting this lack of remorse, but nowhere is this character bolder than in Cash’s imagination, which seems to reject as much as accept the influence of tradition.
Few listeners know the Delia tradition well enough to begin to imagine the permission and rejection that shape Cash’s composition. But the song’s real triumph is that the discontinuity of or apparent contradictoriness within the song’s verbal and emotional textures—moving between antique and contemporary language and between remorse and dark pride—produced by the struggle with and against the tradition, are significant in and of themselves and audible to even the most untutored listener, provided he or she listens well.
This is to say, Cash found a way to embody in sound the depth and fracture of history that gives the song a sense of enormity and power, even if a listener doesn’t know the entire archaeology.