Trollops and Temptresses: Delilah(s) in Twentieth Century Popular Music
In the history of interpretation, it is common to find characters flattening as we progress through time. That is, later readers or interpreters usually pick up on one or two main traits or actions and highlight those to the detriment of not only the biblical narrative in which the character is found, but also the complexity of the characters themselves. However, even in these limited, flattened interpretations one usually finds at least some variety. For example, Moses isn't always portrayed as a heroic figure, and we've been shown multiple renderings of Jesus through the years.
In the case of Delilah, though, aesthetic interpreters have been more willing to ignore the complexity of her character in favor of taking the flattening approach I mentioned earlier to its logical conclusion; i.e., rendering her in only one particular way. This presentation will examine selected interpretations of Delilah in one specific textual repository, twentieth century popular music. I argue that although these examples stem from various decades and multiple genres, they all share a similar view of their subject—Delilah as deceiver and floozy. By discussing these various renderings of Judges 16, I hope to illuminate the harmful repercussions of partial and androcentric interpretations perpetrated through one of the most accessible of all media, popular music.
In a project of this scope, it is helpful to organize our examples into categories in order to appreciate the renderings of Delilah in a more accessible way. Therefore, we'll look at four different categories of pop songs today. First, we examine songs that are retellings of Judges 13-16 in its entirety; i.e., songs that tell the story of Samson and therein mention Delilah. In this category we find the most recorded interpretation of Delilah: the traditional folk spiritual "discovered" by Alan Lomax on one of his many recording tours of the south in the 1930-40s, variously titled "Samson," "Samson and Delilah," or usually, "If I Had My Way." In Lomax's 1941 compendium of ballads and folk songs, this interpretation contains six different verses, and Delilah is mentioned in three of them. Basically, the song implicates Delilah in Samson's downfall by sitting on his knee and speaking "kind" and "fair," so that Samson voluntarily tells her the secret of his strength. Even though this tune has been covered by artists as varied as Blind Willie Johnson (1927), the Grateful Dead, The Blasters, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Bobby Darin, in my opinion the definitive version was recorded by Rev. Gary Davis. Davis sings:
Well Delilah, she was a woman, she was fine and fair.
She had good looks, God knows, and coal-black hair.
Delilah she gained old Samson's mind.
When first he saw this woman, you know he couldn't believe his mind.
Delilah she sat down on Samson's knee,
Said tell me where your strength lies if you please.
She spoke so kind, God knows she talked so fair,
Well Samson said, Delilah you can cut off my hair.
You can shave my head, clean as my hand
And my strength'll come natural as any old man.
If I had my way, if I had my way, if I had my way,
I would tear this old building down.
In this song, even though Delilah is clearly the instigator of the events leading to Samson's death and seems to be the one shaving his hair, we get no information regarding her motives or feelings.
This changes when we consider the example of a 1945 Yiddish radio program titled "Yiddish Melodies in Swing," which contains a song written by Sam Mendoff called "Samson and Delilah." In the chorus of the song, we hear that Delilah, "knocked poor Samson for a loop / To her strong men were just duck soup / Before Samson could realize / She gave the guy a haircut / and she poked out his eyes." The bridge of the song goes into more detail regarding Delilah's actions: "Now Samson told Delilah his strength was in his hair / Delilah gave him wine which really wasn't fair / Then she gave Samson that famous haircut / Gosh! I guess he felt cold without his hair." Unlike "If I Had My Way," Mendoff portrays Delilah as not only the one who procures the source of Samson's strength, but also the one who cuts his hair and blinds him, the last action going above and beyond the biblical narrative in Judges 16:21. Thus, in this category of songs, Delilah is given no motivation for her actions, except for a possible dislike of strong men in general; as such, we as listeners are left with catchy tunes proclaiming Delilah as a woman who takes advantage of Samson in order to enact his downfall.
The second group I discuss consists of songs that focus exclusively on the character of Delilah. In these songs, Delilah is portrayed as completely responsible for Samson's demise, and she enjoys it, too. Consider the tune "Sam and Delilah," from the 1930 musical Girl Crazy, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by his brother George. This song not only takes pains to paint an unflattering portrait of Delilah, calling her a floozy in the first line, but also provides her a motive for her actions. In the third verse, we are told that Samson began to "crave . . . his true wife." Not surprisingly, "Delilah, she got jealous / And she tracked him, and hacked him / And dug for Sam a grave." This motive of jealousy is curious, since it is absent from the biblical account, but it serves to render Delilah as a woman who wouldn't stand for her man to think of other women, thus reinforcing the femme fatale aspect of Delilah's character. One of the most curious aspects of this song is not its portrayal of Delilah, but rather the warning it gives to its listeners. The last two verses of the song let us know that Delilah isn't the only woman in the world who's capable of deceit and murder in the name of passion:
It's always that way with passion.
So cowboy, learn to behave,
Or else, you're liable to cash in,
With no tombstone on your grave.
Delilah, oh Delilah,
She's no babe in the wood.
Run cowboy, run a mile-ah.
If you love that kind of woman,
She'll do you no good.
This warning about Delilah-like women, as well as the advice to "run away" from them, is also found in the 1960 hit by Neil Sedaka, titled "Run, Samson, Run" (written by Howard Greenfield). Again, Delilah is portrayed as a "cheatin' gal," who brings about the downfall of Samson, but here she's also called "a demon, a devil in disguise"; unfortunately, our hero is "taken, by the angel in her eyes." In the chorus, Sedaka advises Samson to run, because "Delilah's on her way," and lets the hearer know that "I'd sooner trust a hungry lion than a gal with a cheatin' heart." It is in the last verse, though, that Sedaka gets specific in terms of the moral of the song.
Oh Delilah, made Sammy's life a sin
And he perished, when the roof fell in
There's a moral, so listen to me pal
There's a little bit of Delilah in each and every gal.
So run Samson run. Delilah's on her way.
Run Samson run. You ain't got time to stay.
Run Samson run, on your mark you better start.
I'd sooner trust a hungry lion than a gal with a cheatin' heart.
By noting the dangers inherent in "every gal," Sedaka is not only repeating warnings regarding female behavior found in texts like Ezekiel 23:48, but he is also implying that Delilah and her actions serve as a discordant model for identity. In so doing, Sedaka is holding up Delilah's character out of its textual confines and twisting it into an androcentric cautionary tale, in which certain kinds of women aren't to be trusted—and you better watch out if you do, pal.
Along with this trend of rendering Delilah as an anti-model for feminine behavior, certain songs in this category also imagine Delilah as a kind of divine, almost goddess-like figure. The theme song for Cecil B. DeMille's 1949 film, Samson and Delilah, sung by Nat King Cole, characterizes Delilah as a "spirit of love . . . timeless love." Furthermore, "She's warm, as the fire is warm / Softly leading beginners in love through the stars / Since time began, since love has been known / She's told every man, 'Why wander alone?'" This portrayal of Delilah as a timeless spirit of love is concretized in DeMille's film with its portrayal of Delilah as a schizophrenic woman, both obsessed with Samson and detesting him at the same time. Along these same lines, the Irish band Dagda released a song titled "Delilah" (in 2001) that specifically calls Delilah a "Goddess of love." The song adopts a fairly standard view of this Goddess's actions: "I hear the Bible says / Way back in older days / Your lover you betrayed / For silver and for gold / Your lover's secret told / His weakness to unfold." The song continues in an almost haiku-like fashion by noting, "Your lover you deceived / Cut off his hair / And weaved / A web of treachery." In sum, the songs that focus exclusively on Delilah are not as restricted as the songs we discussed earlier that retell the story of Samson: by dint of their more limited focus, they are able to emphasize the motivations of and potential dangers caused by Delilah, not just in the biblical narrative, but to all men.
The third group we look at consist of songs that mention Delilah in a biblical context, but aren't specifically about her. For example, in the soundtrack album to the 1958 film King Creole, Elvis Presley includes a song called, "Hard Headed Woman" (words and music by Claude Demetrius). Unbeknownst to most biblical scholars, this song treats its basic theme, viz., "Ever since the world began / A hard headed woman been / A thorn in the side of man," by using three examples from the Hebrew Bible: Eve, Delilah, and Jezebel. Speaking of Delilah, Elvis comments, "Now Samson told Delilah / Loud and Clear / 'Keep your cotton pickin' fingers out my curly hair.'" Here, as in each of the second through fourth verses, the song exaggerates or simply adds to the biblical text to make its point, but the implication is clear nonetheless: Delilah is one of the prime examples of a "hard headed woman" and as such has been a thorn in the side of man forever. The last verse problematizes the song's reading of Delilah, for in it Elvis notes, "I got a woman / Head like a rock / If she ever went away / I'd cry around the clock." Thus, the male speaker here not only celebrates his feelings for his own "hard headed woman," but also casts doubt on his unequivocal earlier claims.
In his 1981 song, "Modern Day Delilah," Van Stephenson offers no ambiguity toward his female subject. The woman he sings about is compared to Delilah, and in the process Stephenson describes some of her more detrimental character traits:
She's a modern day Delilah.
Keeps her scissors razor sharp.
Once she finds your weakness,
She'll cut you to the quick,
Stab you in the heart.
She'll love you like a lion,
Leave you like a lamb.
She's a modern day Delilah.
She'll cut you if she can.
While this song pulls no punches in its negative portrayal of the singer's object of distaste, a song by Eddie Cole and the Three Peppers from the late 1940s, called "Delilah (with a Capital D)," presents a much more balanced portrayal of its title character. Unlike Stephenson, Cole actually describes some of the appealing qualities of his subject before warning his listener about trying to get her attention: "Don't try no wolfish glare / And remember Samson's hair / That's Delilah with a capital D." In the bridge and last verse of the song, Cole uses wonderful imagery to describe what will happen to someone who seeks to "make time" with this woman.
She'll have you boxed up, nailed up, labeled and shipped out.
You'll be all at sea.
And while you're sailing, wailing, writing letters for mailing,
She's having her five o'clock tea.
Will you take a tip from me,
Don't begin no misery
Just remember how a flower lures a bee.
And when you sum it up, it's the bee that gets stuck.
That's Delilah with a capital D.
D-E-L-I-L-A-H, with a capital D.
What we have essentially in these songs are stories about women who have either wronged the singer or whom the singer knows to represent trouble because of presumed personal experience or because that's just the way women are. Either way, the use of Delilah as a comparative trope provides a signal to the audience of woman's capacity for treachery and deception. It tells us to be wary of these women because they, too, could be like Delilah. In this regard, their message is similar to the songs we discussed earlier focused exclusively on Delilah.
Our last category is made up of songs about women who happen to be named Delilah, but which don't mention anything about the biblical text. Surprisingly, several of these songs actually have neutral or even positive views of their eponymous characters. For example, Major Lance's 1962 song, "Delilah," portrays the title character as a big city girl whom the speaker is trying to woo so that she'll return with him to his country town. Similarly, Marshall Crenshaw's 1991 album, Life's Too Short, includes a song called "Delilah." It is a fairly standard love song, as is the song titled "Delilah," by the self-described lesbian acoustic folk artist Kaia. However, these songs are often overshadowed by the more popular songs found in this category, the first of which is the song "Beautiful Delilah," first written and performed by Chuck Berry, but popularized by both The Kinks and The Rolling Stones. In this song, Berry paints a picture for us of an attractive girl who is "sweet as apple pie," but "every time you see her she's with a different guy." This young woman is always "dressed in the latest style / Swingin' like a pendulum, walkin' down the aisle"; because of this, we're told, "Rebecca don't allow me to fool around with you / You are so tantalizing you just can't be true." Thus here we see a subtle use of the name of Delilah, in that the woman in Berry's song seems to be a temptress who is knowledgeable about love, but still revels in breaking hearts.
The last example I discuss from this group is arguably the most famous of them all, Tom Jones' 1967 mega-hit "Delilah." It tells the story of a man who sees his woman cheating on him, and so he confronts her. She laughs at him, and so he kills her.
At break of day when that man drove away I was waiting.
I crossed the street to her house and she opened the door.
She stood there laughing.
I felt the knife in my hand, and she laughed no more.
My, my, my, Delilah.
Why, why, why, Delilah?
So before they come to break down the door.
Forgive me Delilah, I just couldn't take any more.
The images of treachery and betrayal in the song mesh rather well with the portrayal of Delilah in songs we have examined that use the biblical text specifically to tell their story of Delilah. Additionally, the violent response of the male narrator corresponds with the violence done to and later by Samson in Judges 16, but here it is reversed: just like Delilah in many of the songs we have discussed, this woman betrays her man, and yet unlike those songs, it is the woman who is the victim of violence in this song, not the wronged man. Thus, this song could be making an intertextual comment on the perceived lack of punishment Delilah receives in the biblical narrative.
In sum, almost all of the songs we have discussed portray Delilah negatively in comparison with the biblical narrative. In these three-to-four minute interpretations, she is shown most often as a harlot, a deceiver, and in some songs a warning to all men. By so doing, these songs not only ignore the multiple interpretations possible of Judges 16, but they also reinscribe Delilah with the traits patriarchal culture most often associates with the classic femme fatale. Thus, these renderings eschew ambiguity and the possibility of more equitable readings of Delilah in favor of stereotypical images of deceiving and dangerous women. The net effect of couching such irresponsible messages in popular music makes their proliferation all the more probable. However, by noting and exploring these renderings, we can perhaps resist their messages at the same time we tap our toes.
Dan W. Clanton, Jr., University of Denver. firstname.lastname@example.org
1. John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, collectors and compilers, Our Singing Country: A Second Volume of American Ballads and Folksongs (New York: Macmillan, 1941), 6-9.
2.Curiously, this is also the tactic that drives Delilah to cut Samson's hair in Cecil B. DeMille's 1949 film, Samson and Delilah.
Citation: Dan W. Clanton, Jr., " Trollops and Temptresses: Delilah(s) in Twentieth Century Popular Music," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=391