Listening recently to Surrounded by Time, the latest album by Tom Jones, I was struck by the Welch belter's version of a favorite old folk song that's been recorded by many artists old and new: "Samson and Delilah." Now ol' Tom decades ago recorded another song about a lady named Delilah, but this new one, produced by Ethan Johns and Mark Woodward, sounds like battered olold shaman telling a Bible story from the world of dreams.
I always assumed that "Samson" was written by the Reverend Gary Davis, who recorded it in the 1950s. But according to music historian Elijah Wald, the song goes back much further. Wald says the tune can be traced to "Wasn’t that a Witness for My Lord,” which he says is "a sort of musical compendium of Bible stories, which included three verses about Samson, two of which are close to what Davis sang." This song was mentioned in a 1909 article about African American spirituals by sociologist Howard Odum.
And a few decades before Davis told of Samson bare-handedly slaying a lion who'd "killed a man with his paws," there were at least three versions recorded in the late 1920s by three men: Blind Willie Johnson in Dallas, Rev. T.E. Weems in Atlanta and Rev. T.T. Rose in Chicago.
All three were clearly based on the same source, though each performer had edited the lyric somewhat differently to fit a three-minute 78 rpm disc. I guessed the source must have been a published broadside (a printed song sheet with lyrics but no music), and eventually found a copy of that broadside in John Lomax’s papers at the University of Texas.
So let's have a listen to these various "Samson and Delilahs, shall we?
Here's Blind Willie Johnson:
This is how Rev. Weems saw that momentous haircut:
What do you say, Rev. Rose?
Rev. Gary Davis spread the word of Samson to a new generation of folkies and rockers. (Strange fact I just made up: The little girl with Rev.Davis pictured in the video grew up to be Courtney Love!)
The Staple Singers knew a great soul gospel tune when they heard it:
Surely the most famous version of the Samson saga was by The Grateful Dead:
One of my favorite takes was by The Blasters in the early '80s. Singing background vocals were The Jordanairres, Elvis’ old gospel-flavored background group:
Finally, Tom Jones takes Samson into a strange dimension:
For more deep dives into songs, check out The Stephen W. Terrell Web Log Songbook