Web Exclusives: PawPlus

January 26, 2005:

The Sad Song of Delia Green and Cooney Houston

By Sean Wilentz

Excerpted from "The Rose & the Briar," edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus. Copyright 2004. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.

To listen to Koerner, Ray & Glover's version of "Deliah's Gone," click here to listen to an Mp3 file of "Deliah's Gone," a track from "The Rose & the Briar" CD issued by Legacy Recordings.
Courtesy Koerner, Ray & Glover.

Delia, oh Delia,
Where you been so long?
Everybody's talking bout ya!
Now you're dead and gone.
One more round, Delia’s gone,
One more round, Delia’s gone.

-- Eric Bibb, "Delia’s Gone,” on Painting Signs (2001)

Son of a bitch.

The curse is ubiquitous and supple, mild enough today for prime time. It can connote a hard turn of luck. It gets said in commiseration or as a shout of glee. In the white South, slurred – sum-bitch – it passes as a semi-obscenity, more emphatic and vulgar than “jerk” and less offensive than the usual four-letter words. But in the poor, rough, and black Yamacraw district in the western end of Savannah, Georgia, on Christmas Eve night in 1900, it was a curse so “wicked” – according to one version of “Delia,” aka “Delia’s Gone” – that when fourteen-year-old Delia Green called her fourteen-year-old lover, Moses “Cooney” Houston, a son of a bitch, he shot her dead.

That version of the song does not reveal why Delia cursed Cooney, what the curse actually was, why Cooney’s outrage turned lethal, and why anybody should care, let alone sing about it. Most of the other versions are equally elliptical, including the one Bob Dylan sings on World Gone Wrong, recorded in 1993. In the album’s liner notes, Dylan does offer a vivid interpretation of the mystery that turns out to be historically on the mark: “[T]he song has no middle range, comes whipping around the comer, seems to be about counterfeit loyalty.” That accounting, even with its tentative note, is truer by far to what happened than the most widely listened-to “Delia” to date, by Johnny Cash. “Delia’s Gone” is the overpowering first track on Cash’s album American Recordings, which, when released in 1994, won Cash a new following among music fans of the rap-and-grunge generation. Cash sings in the first person as an unnamed, calculating killer who, dealt some unmentioned hurt that is almost certainly infidelity, has tracked the “low-down, triflin’ ” Delia to Memphis, tied her to a chair, and blasted her to death with a submachine gun. The killer's conscience bothers him after he lands in prison, but the song ends remorselessly, with a passive-voice line that shifts the blame back from the murderer to his victim:

So if your woman’s devilish
You can let her run,
Or you can bring her down and
Do her like Delia got done.

It's all very different from what Dylan sings and writes – and from the version of “Delia” that Cash recorded in 1962. Although also sung in the first person, Cash’s earlier rendition leaves the killer's motive unclear and ends with his being shackled to a ball and chain, dogged by guilt and Delia’s ghost. According to Cash, he found the new “Delia’s Gone” in the same part of his imagination where he found “Folsom Prison Blues” – a revision by an artist “older and wiser to human depravity” than he once was. Whether out of wisdom or vicarious, play-acting evil, a young 1990s public, on the verge of the gangsta boom, loved it.

Or perhaps the young public loved another even more fanciful version of the story, as presented on the video that accompanied Cash's song and that got heavy airplay on MTV and CMTV. There, the notoriously anorexic, heroin-chic Calvin Klein model Kate Moss played Delia, the perfect white pop woman-child victim for a certain kind of modern American ballad psychosis. Delia Green was also a woman-child, but if we don't know much at all about what she looked like, it's obvious that she was no Kate Moss. And Cooney Houston, the truly disturbing character in the actual story, was nothing like the persona that Johnny Cash inhabited – except that he, too, seemed to overcome whatever guilt he felt about his crime.

Thanks to the research of John Garst, we know more about the facts behind “Delia” than we do for most American ballads. At around 3 A.M. on Christmas Day, Delia Green, “a colored girl,” one newspaper reported, died of a gunshot wound to the groin at her home at 113 Ann Street, where she resided with her mother. The police arrested a light-skinned black, Cooney Houston (sometimes referred to as Mose), and booked him for murder. There was never any question about who pulled the trigger, only about why.

The shooting occurred at the home of Willie West and his wife, Emma, one block from Delia’s home. There is conflicting testimony about what was happening at the Wests’. Some witnesses said that the place was filled with drunken carousers, most of them women. Others said the group was small, everyone was sober (or that everyone was sober except Houston), and that the assembled were standing around the Wests'organ in the parlor singing “Rock of Ages.”As it was Christmas Eve, a time of special celebration and feasting for Southern blacks since slavery times, perhaps there was some truth to both accounts – in which case, the singing of “Rock of Ages” may have been more profane than pious. In any event, Cooney Houston appears to have been what one witness at the trial called “full,” which today would be “loaded.”

After the shot rang out, Willie West chased Houston, caught him, and handed him over to patrolman J. T. Williams. Williams later testified that Cooney immediately confessed to shooting his girlfriend, saying that they had gotten into a row and that she had called him a son of a bitch and so he shot her, and he would do so again.

At his trial, Houston and a supporting witness named Willie Mills told a different story. In the midst of a drunken party, supposedly, West bid Cooney to retrieve his pistol from a repair shop, which Cooney did. The boy placed the gun under a napkin. After Cooney returned from a second errand to get more beer and whiskey, he and a friend named Eddie Cohen got in a friendly tussle over the gun, which went off; the bullet accidentally hit Delia.

Houston's second story convinced nobody. Another witness testified that Willie Mills, Houston’s corroborating witness, was not even on the scene at the time of the shooting. Eddie Cohen, identified as Emma West's second cousin, swore that he had already left the house when the killing occurred and that he had not struggled with "this boy" over a pistol. The jury found Houston guilty but recommended mercy. The judge, Paul F. Seabrook, sentenced him to life in prison instead of death.

Reports of the murder made it into the leading local newspapers, the Savannah Morning News and the Savannah Evening Press. Even when the victim as well as the perpetrator was black, murder was news enough for white editors and reporters. Alleged black-on-white attacks, and the lynchings that sometimes followed, were bigger news, of course.* Still, Delia Green’s murder at least rated a couple of stories, if only to affirm to white readers that drunkenness and violence were endemic to the bars and bawdy house of Yarnacraw.

In contrast to the newspaper accounts, the ballads ignore that both Delia and her killer were barely in their teens. It is a crucial omission, and the reasons for it are mysterious. At the time, the press emphasized how young the two were. (The first dispatch, in the Morning News, noted that Delia was a mere girl, “but 14 years old,”yet said nothing about Cooney's age. The Evening Press, published hours later, got the full story: “Boy Killed Girl,” it reported on page 5.) Some versions of the ballad lightly imply that Delia lived with her parents, but it is only an implication; and plenty of poor young adults live with their parents. By saying nothing more, the songs leave an enormous misimpression. Cooney's murder of Delia was not simply a crime of passion arising from a lovers'quarrel; it was a crime of passion involving two lovers barely out of puberty. It was a childish murder. It was precisely the opposite of Johnny Cash's deliberate mayhem, engineered by a cold-blooded killer.

According to the differing accounts in the trial transcript, this is roughly what transpired between Delia and Cooney:

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.”

Mutual cursing followed.

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. You have been calling me ‘husband.’ ”

Delia: “You lie!”About fifteen minutes after the argument ended, Cooney started for the door, turned, pulled out a pistol, and fired. He had boasted of a grown-up fantasy about himself and about Delia. (It sounds as if the sex was real, although young teenage boys are known, historically, to lie extravagantly about far more equivocal sexual encounters. But the common-law marriage was not real, or so Delia insisted.) Delia broke up whatever was between them and verbally cut him dead. She was not his “little wife.” She was a lady and thus not guilty, by definition, of serious improprieties. He was low, a son of a bitch. Cooney, the boy, turned hot, saying in so many words that he had fucked her twenty times, and that that made her his. But Delia’s curse still burned in Cooney’s brain, almost certainly fueled by alcohol; and when he tried to one-up her, Delia hit right back, treating him (as one account put it) with “supreme contempt.” Minutes later, she was bleeding to death and Cooney was out the door.

It is a commonplace that, in passionate conflicts, women are agile with words whereas men get frustrated and violent. That is what seems to have happened here. Add the strong possibility that Willie and Emma West’s place, later described by Houston’s lawyer as a “rough house,” was actually a bordello, and that Delia Green may have been one of the Wests’ younger prostitutes, and the scene looks familiar enough. Yet Delia’s words painted a different picture: she was neither a common whore nor Cooney’s “wife,” she said; she was proper. Saying so with a curse got her killed by her disgruntled boyfriend, who may have been angry that she had turned to prostitution and was jealous of her johns.

Whatever the case, these two were children. Even by the hard standards of the Jim Crow South of 1900, most people saw Delia Green and Cooney Houston that way. The fictionalized characters Frankie and Johnny, in the classic American ballad of jealousy and murder, worked by mature if maddened design. (Although the actual “Johnny,” Albert Britt, was barely older than Cooney, Frankie Baker appears to have been in her twenties.) With the real-life adolescents Delia and Cooney, the words cut deeper and the killing came quicker.

“Boy Charged with Murder,” blared a front-page headline in the Savannah Evening Press on the eve of Houston’s trial, three months after the shooting. At the trial itself, age – and, more subtly, race – made all the difference. And in the ever-elliptical ballad renditions, the courtroom drama is almost always the soul of the song.

Houston stood accused as an adult. (There was then no juvenile justice system in Georgia.) The defense made a great deal of Houston’s youth. Cooney, now fifteen, showed up for his arraignment the day before the trial dressed in short pants. The Morning News reported that he had “the round cheerful countenance of many mulattoes” and that he “seemed to be rather above the average of negro intelligence.” He “gave no outward indication of being possessed of the ‘abandoned and malignant heart,’ which the law says shall be inferred to exist” in cases of murder.

In a later petition for clemency, Houston’s attorney, Raiford Falligant, an eminent white member of the Georgia bar, laid out the case for the defense. Houston, Falligant said, was “a mere child” at the time of the killing. He had “got into bad company and so unfortunately committed the act that he now suffers for.” It was all a tragic accident. Cooney “was crazed by drink in boisterous company for the first time in his life and … the crowd he was with and in got him drunk.”

The truly shocking part of the proceedings came immediately after the jury delivered its verdict of guilty. Houston’s mother, described by the Morning News as “an old black woman of respectable appearance,” broke down and sobbed. Cooney stood up, emotionless, at Judge Seabrook’s command.

“Houston,” said the judge, “you have been indicted and tried for the crime of murder. The jury has seen fit to accompany its verdict with a recommendation to mercy, and it now becomes my duty to impose the sentence directed by the law. I perform this duty with some pain and some reluctance; I dislike to condemn one of your youth and apparent intelligence to life imprisonment. In so doing I exhort you to be a man, even in confinement, to repent of your past evil deeds and strive to earn the confidence and respect of those placed in authority over you.”

But Cooney did not cooperate. Gaily, he thanked the judge and pranced out of the courtroom in a bailiff’s custody, “calm and as debonair,” the News dispatch said, “as if the experience through which he had just passed was a matter of every day occurrence and of no particular importance.”

As the convict waited to be taken to prison, a sheriff’s deputy asked him how he liked the verdict and sentence. “I don't like it at all,” he answered, “but I guess I'll have to stand it.” The next day, the News reported that Houston’s age had “saved his neck” and that he had endured the ordeal “without turning a hair.”

What actually happened may have been more pathetic. Cooney, scared out of his wits, could easily have been mustering some teenage bravado. Or maybe, in his confusion, he simply tried, too late, to show a last bit of respect to the judge, as he'd been instructed to do by his lawyer. (“Thank you, sir,” is what Cooney said.) But that is not how it came across in the papers. Instead, it seemed as if a young black – literally a boy – made light of the grimmest of occasions, sassed a white judge, and showed not regret but a twinkle of triumph. He was a killer, no matter his age – and he had beaten the system by cheating the gallows. He was not ashamed. He was not pitiable. And he'd fooled everybody.

Outrage at this reported travesty – or, perhaps, a knowing cynicism about such outrage and the white newspaper reports that provoked it – pervades the many versions of “Delia.” Just as there is nothing about the killer's age, there is nothing about the racial tingling caused by Cooney’s light-hearted words and demeanor. (Indeed, in another mystery, none of the song versions makes any direct reference to either Cooney's or Delia’s skin color. Most versions seem actively to avoid doing so by giving Cooney another name – “Cutty” or “Curtis” or “Tony,” or something else – thereby eliminating any allusion to “coon.”)

But there is almost always something about a courtroom exchange between the judge and the killer. It might be as simple as Bob Dylan's lines, swiped from Blind Willie McTell, in which "Curtis" asks the judge about what would be his fine-as if he'd get off that lightly-and the judge replies, “Poor boy, you got ninety-nine.” It might be closer to the reported facts, as in the version that Arthur Bayas and Nemser Lipton include in their 1978 compilation, The Best Bluegmss Songbook-Yet! (In this “Delia,”the judge sentences “Tony” to ninety-nine years, and the prisoner says, “Thank you, your honor treated me fine,” knowing that the judge could easily have said, “Nine hundred ninety-nine.”) It might, as in McTell's version, have the judge ask “Cutty” what the fuss was about, with the accused replying that a bunch of gamblers (McTell also calls them “rounders”) had come between him and Delia. Or it might be more involved, as in the “Delia” performed by Koerner, Ray, and Glover:

Monday he was arrested, on Tuesday he was tried
The jury found him guilty and the judge said “Ninety-nine”
Delia's gone, one more round and Delia's gone.

"Ninety-nine years in the prison, hey, judge that ain't no time,
I got a brother in New Orleans doin'nine hundred ninety-nine"
Now Delia's gone, one more round and Delia’s gone.

Of the best-known modern versions, only Cash's psychotic murderer from 1994 escapes a showdown with the judge.

The songs also usually speculate about the killer's sorrow or lack of it – and the uselessness of that sorrow as far as poor Delia was concerned. Commonly, there is a description of the convict in his cell drinking from a silver cup (sometimes it's a humbler, prison-issue tin cup), while Delia’s in the graveyard and she won't ever get up. (McTell, in a 1940 recording, has “Cutty” drinking in a barroom, scot-free. McTell also sings that Delia “may not never wake up,”which in its uncertainty could connote the Resurrection or could be something more ghoulish.) Sometimes Cooney, or Cutty, or Tony, or whatever his name happens to be, is tortured by his deed. Sometimes he tells the jailer he cannot sleep, since all around his bed at night he can hear little Delia creep. But the bottom line is always harsher. Delia is dead, Cooney is alive, and all the penitence in the world cannot change that cruel fact.

Thus, in their elusive way, the songs about Delia and Cooney actually get to the emotional heart of the matter as it happened – or as it appeared to happen – more than a century ago. They are not simply murder ballads, they are trial ballads – and ballads of irredeemable injustice, even though justice was done and hard punishment meted out. Bob Dylan got it right when he wrote of Cooney: “He's not interested in mosques on the temple mount, Armageddon or world war III, doesn't put his face in his knees & weep & wears no dunce hat, makes no apology & is doomed to obscurity.” The truth about Cooney Houston and about Delia Green just turns out to be, no matter how you interpret it, less clear-cut and even sadder than Dylan suspected.

Moses “Cooney” Houston served just over twelve years of his life sentence. On October 15,1913, Georgia Governor John M. Slaton signed an order approving his parole. Subsequent unconfirmed reports say that Houston got in trouble with the law again after his release, that he moved to New York City, and that he died around 1927, which would have made him a little over forty.

The merciful Governor Slaton soon found himself in trouble of a different kind. Five months before Houston's release, the dead body of a fifteen-year-old white girl, Mary Phagan, was found in a pencil factory in Atlanta. In a controversial and still notorious trial, Leo Frank, the factory supervisor and a New York-raised Jew, was convicted for the crime on the basis of tainted evidence, and sentenced to death. The verdict caused massive civil-rights protests, which led to an unsuccessful appeal to the United States Supreme Court. In Georgia, public opinion was equally inflamed against Frank, whom the local district attorney called “a wealthy yankee Jew.” In June 1915, Governor Slaton, who believed that Frank had been unfairly convicted, commuted his sentence to life in prison. Hounded by an irate public, his effigy burned in public, Slaton was soon voted out of office and forced to leave the state. On August 16,1915, an armed mob lynched Leo Frank, which sparked new protests, and which today remains a subject of outrage and shame. The authorities filed no charges in connection with the crime.

No one has discovered who Houston's friend Eddie Cohen was and how someone with that name could have been Emma West's second cousin.

Delia Green is buried at Laurel Grave Cemetery South, in Savannah, amid trees covered with Spanish moss. The exact location of her unmarked grave was forgotten long ago.

* Four years after Cooney shot Delia, two black men, Will Cato and Paul Reed, were convicted of murdering a white family in Statesboro in nearby Bulloch County. A mob summarily removed Cato and Reed from jail, doused them with oil, and burned them at the stake. The Savannah Morning News abetted both the prosecution against the two and their lynching, with numerous sensational stories. “WILL LYNCH PRISONERS AS SOON AS CONVICTED,”one headline ran during Cato and Reed's trial. The hysteria lasted long after Cato’s and Reed’s deaths, leading to a rash of assaults by whites on blacks that caused a full-scale black exodus from Statesboro. Years later, Blind Willie McTell would sing (and, in 1927, record) his now-famous “Statesboro Blues.” “Reach over in the corner, hand me my travelin' shoes,” McTell sang, “you know by that, I got them Statesboro blues” – but he was describing visiting the town, not leaving it. Born outside Augusta, McTell had settled with his family in Statesboro around 1907, when he was about eight – after the antiblack hysteria had died down. Thanks to McTell’s powerful song, Statesboro is remembered for being a pleasant place, “up the country” from Savannah, rather than for the long-since forgotten events of 1904. In 1940, and again in 1949, McTell, having traveled widely and made Atlanta his base of operations, would record his own version of “Delia.”