Music Monday: Samson and Delilah

March 7, 2016

Samson and Delilah is a traditional song about the Biblical tale which became a standard for the Grateful Dead who learned it from Reverend Gary Davis. A performance by Davis is on YouTube:

Davis’s performance and arrangement is stark, bluesy, and compelling with a strange contrast between the jauntier instrumental backing powerful, alternatively shouting, desperate and contemplative vocals.

While the verses are fun with lots of cool words and imagery, I think it’s the chorus that grabs people. Here’s the Grateful Dead version:

I’m sorta meh on this version. But there really are innumerable others (not even getting into other songs based on the story), such as Clara Ward’s very gospelly one:

 

Or Bruce Springsteen’s:

This has some echoes of Davis’s performance. But the consistent near monotone vocals in the verses really works with Springsteen’s raspy voice so when he hits the chorus (and the amazing, gospelly backing singers kick in), it has lots of punch.

However, my all time favourite performance is by Shirley Manson. Given my love for Blu Holliday’s “Born To Be Wild” this is no surprise as it has basically the same valance: Intense, moody, spooky to torchy vocal production over a strong “filling” arrangement. I find the chorus change to “Burn this building down” to be surprisingly significant:

This performance was used to open one of the best episodes of television ever and certainly the peak  of the Terminator franchise (though it cannot stand alone):

You won’t get just how good this opening is without a lot of backstory, but those few minutes are an amazing bit of storytelling that has ramifications not just of plot but of character development and overall tone and subtext.

Check out this video of Manson recording the vocal line:

If I visit Zoe in the studio, I hear a lot of this sort of thing. It’s very weird! What I find most interesting is that you get a very clear sense of the gap between the vocal line and the final arrangement and mix.

While this post is all about the specific Samson and Delilah song going back to (at least) Davis, I did stumble upon a droll Tim Hawkins ditty:

and Middle of the Road’s poppy Samson and Delilah song (“na na na na”s in the chorus?! Fun!):

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