I’ve always named the Reverend Gary Davis as one of my main influences on guitar and loved playing his instrumental showpieces (like “Cincinnati Flow Rag“), but although I learned a bunch of his superb gospel arrangements I rarely performed them because I couldn’t get behind the lyrics. This was the great exception because it tells a Bible story rather than exhorting anyone to believe, and it’s a great lyric with a great accompaniment.
When I first learned this I sang Davis’s lyric, but then I heard the Staple Singers’ version, which extended the story to the moment when Samson pulls the building down. So I learned that, and it’s the one I play here…
… and that got me interested in whether there were even more verses. So I began doing some research, which led into a larger project on the African American tradition of rapping or singing Bible stories. That’s an ongoing effort, part of a still larger project to explore the deep roots of rap, which so far has produced my book on the dozens. Meanwhile I turned up quite a lot of additional information on “Samson and Delilah,” which seems to have been uniquely popular and spread across the South in multiple versions in the first decades of the twentieth century.
The first solid evidence of this song is three verses in “Wasn’t that a Witness for My Lord,” a sort of musical compendium of Bible stories, which included three verses about Samson, two of which are close to what Davis sang. Howard Odum published a version of this song in 1909 as part of an article on recent African American spirituals in The American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education, and it remained popular with jubilee quartets through the mid-20th century.
Over the next two decades several authors published excerpts from longer versions of the Samson and Delilah ballad, and in 1927 the first three recordings of it appeared within a few months of each other, by Blind Willie Johnson in Dallas, Rev. T. T. Rose in Chicago, and Rev. T. E. Weems in Atlanta. 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.
Interestingly, the version recorded in 1927 is quite different from what Davis and the Staples sang, and their lyric is closer to the verses collected by Odum twenty years earlier… which leads me to think it was already around, certainly in oral tradition and likely in print — but there has been virtually no research on African American religious broadsides, so I’m still kind of stumbling in the dark. (If anyone has suggestions of archives or libraries that have collected this sort of material, please pass them along.)
Meanwhile, here’s a compendium of verses from the versions I’ve found extant by the 1920s, suggesting how long and impressive some early performances may have been:
Delilah was a woman that was fine and fair.
Pleasant looking with coal black hair.
Delilah she gained old Samson’s mind,
When he first seen the woman of the Philistine.
Why he went to Timothy [Timnath] I cannot tell
But the daughter of Timothy she pleased him well.
He asked his father to go and see
Can you get that beautiful woman for me?
Sampson’s mother she said to him,
Can’t you find a wife among our kin;
She said, O Sampson, it grieves your mother’s mind
For you to go and marry to a Philistine.
If I had my way,
O Lordy, Lordy,
If I had my way;
If I had my way,
I would tear this building down.
You’ve read about Samson, from his birth
He was the strongest man ever lived on earth
You read way back in that ancient times
Lord, he faced a thousand of the Philistines
Let me tell you what Samson done.
He broke at a lion, and the lion run.
Oh, Samson was the man that the lion attack
Lord, Samson jumped on that lion’s back
’Twas written that the lion killed a man with his paw,
But Sampson got his hand in the lion’s jaw.
Lord, he broke that lion, killed him dead
And the bees made honey in the lion’s head.
Sampson gave a feast and there came a debate,
He put forth a riddle to interpretate,
So many garments he said he would give
If they tell his riddle in seven days.
Sampson’s feast was almost through,
The known of the riddle was not yet in view.
They called his wife and instruct her what to do,
“Please ask your husband and he’ll tell it to you.”
She says, “What is the riddle, please tell it to me,
You said ‘Out of the eater came forth meat;’
What is your riddle, please tell it to me,
You said ‘Out of the strong came forth the sweet.’”
“I killed a lion, long after he was dead
The bees made honey in the lion’s head.”
Sampson burned down a field of corn,
They looked for Sampson but he was gone.
So many thousands they formed a plot,
It was not many days before he was caught.
They bound his hands, while walking along
He looked on the ground and saw an old jawbone
He just moved his arms, the rope popped like thread,
When he got through slaying three thousand was dead.
Sampson went to town and he stayed too late,
They wanted to kill him and they laid in wait.
Tell me, wasn’t Sampson awfully strong?
He pulled up the gate posts and he carried them along.
Oh, Samson’s hair went wandering about
Lord, the strength of Samson was never found out
Until his wife she sat upon his knees
Said, “Tell me, Samson, where your strength lies, please”
Lord, she looked so pretty, she talked so fair,
Samson said, “Woman, it’s in my hair.
You shave my head just as clean as your hand
Lord, my strength will become like a natural man.”
Sampson was a man very large in size,
They overpowered Samson and plucked out his eyes.
O Church, just listen to the tale,
They caught poor Sampson and put him in jail.
Church, let me tell you what the Philistines done,
They brought Sampson to the building to have some fun.
But now, O Church, ain’t you glad
To hear what Sampson said to the lad,
These was the words that Sampson said,
Show me a pillar for to lean my head.
We are told that the building was high from the ground,
Sampson braced against the pillar and it tumbled down.