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DELIA'S GONE: Murder Ballads & Other Songs of Love & Death - a video album

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Oct 12, 2019 - 2:13:11 PM
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5298 posts since 1/16/2010

Since Don Borchelt has posted his review of my album here on the Banjo Hangout: and I have posted all of the videos of the recording of each song on the album on Vimeo, I thought it might be appropriate to post the entire video version of the album here. The audio version of the album can be found on CD Baby, iTunes, Spotify and many other of your favourite places to buy, stream or steal music.

1. Delia's Gone from Marc Nerenberg on Vimeo.

2. Little Sadie (live) from Marc Nerenberg on Vimeo.

3. Dink's Song from Marc Nerenberg on Vimeo.

4. Poor Aunt Lisa from Marc Nerenberg on Vimeo.

5. Delia's Dilemma from Marc Nerenberg on Vimeo.

6. Darlin Corey (live) from Marc Nerenberg on Vimeo.

7. Pretty Polly from Marc Nerenberg on Vimeo.

8. Puppets in Raincoats from Marc Nerenberg on Vimeo.

9. Saint James Infirmary Blues from Marc Nerenberg on Vimeo.

10. Toby from Marc Nerenberg on Vimeo.

11. Bleaching Bones (live) from Marc Nerenberg on Vimeo.

For completeness, here are the liner notes for the album:


Probably, it’s the years I spent as a lawyer, specializing in international criminal law, and dealing much of the time with cases concerning war crimes and crimes against humanity, that led me to the misguided notion that murder ballads would be a fit subject for an album. It is, indeed, a marked contrast to my previous album, of decades ago, of story songs for children. No one dies on that album.



Ten years ago, I decided to add this song, which I had heard in multiple diverse versions, to my repertoire, and I set out to create a version of my own. I did some research on the internet, looking for different sets of lyrics to use as raw material, and I came across the results of the research that had been done by John Garst, some years earlier. He had gone back to the newspapers and court records of the day, to piece together the true story of the murder of Delia Green, in Savannah Georgia, very early on a Christmas morning, at the dawn of the 20th century. It seems that over time, the telling of that story in song had become so twisted and distorted that Delia, the victim in reality, had somehow become the villain of the piece. At the suggestion of my wife, Rosemary, I abandoned the version of the song I was working on, and completely re-wrote about half of it, to tell, instead, this tragic true story.



This is another old song for which I stitched together bits and pieces of various versions and added a lot of bits and pieces of my own. One of the versions I came across mentioned cocaine, and I enlarged upon that by grafting on the facts of an actual attempted murder case involving cocaine that I had done as a defence lawyer. I also threw in a courtroom scene, and something resembling some repentant advice from the killer at the end. In real life, my client was completely unrepentant, and I was quietly not unhappy when the judge rejected the plea bargain that had been agreed to by the prosecution (because the crime was simply too grave) and gave him a considerably longer sentence than the one he was expecting.



This variant of the old song “Careless Love” was collected on a wax cylinder by John Lomax from a woman named Dink on his first foray in field recording at the beginning of the twentieth century, which cylinder broke shortly thereafter. When Lomax went back to try to record the song again, he found that Dink had died since he had last been there. Our knowledge of the song today is, thus, based entirely on the recollections of the few people who had heard that original recording before it was lost forever. My version of the song is somewhat darker than most, largely because I had found some lyrics to be rather indecipherable on the very early Bob Dylan bootleg recording that I first learned it from (where he seemed to be singing Dave Van Ronk’s version of the song). I inadvertently came up with new darker alternative lyrics for those parts. To me, they enlarge upon what I feel is implied in the lyrics that I could make out clearly, so I’ve kept them.



The words to this song came to me while I was driving to court one day. I wrote them down on the outside of an envelope before getting out of my car, once I had found a place to park near the courthouse. In my mind’s eye, I pictured them as a text for an Edward Gorey picture book. It’s an adult story, told here as though it were a jaunty children’s song, much as Gorey’s tiny illustrated adult books so resembled children’s picture books. The sung melody is loosely based on my memory of a partial banjo tune that was made up by someone who called herself “Aunt Lisa”, from Chatham NY, that she posted on a banjo website some years ago, soliciting suggestions about how to finish the tune.  At least, I had that tune in mind when I made up the lyrics in my car. I don’t know how far I may have strayed from it in the intervening years.


5. Delia’s Dilemma

One night, when walking the dog, the thought occurred to me that putting the hard gambling Delia, of the Blind Willie McTell version of Delia’s Gone (see above) together with the hard gambling Toby, of Brien Lavene’s song, Toby, (see below) might make for a good song of its own. Working from that premise, I wrote as far as getting Delia and Toby to a dance hall in San Francisco when I found myself stumped as to what happens next. So I sang what I had to Rosemary, who always knows better than I do what I should do in writing my songs. She said, “It’s obvious!” and told me about the other woman. She was right. The rest of the song pretty much wrote itself. My biggest problem then was that the song had grown to be around a meandering 12 minutes long. I spent a lot of agonizing time cutting it to about half its original length, but it’s a much better song for it.



I guess I inadvertently turned this song into a murder ballad when I wrote down some half-remembered lyrics when I wanted to sing it. I always thought there was an implied murder in this song, so one appeared as I tried to pull the lyrics out of my memory. Eventually, I looked up other sets of lyrics, and while I don’t find the murder explicitly in there, I did borrow bits and pieces to flesh out the song, which seems to me to work as a murder ballad. The banjo figures I play are loosely based on the playing of B. F. Shelton in his 1927 recording of this song.



Derived from the older British Ballad, The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter, which tells a much longer story, the American song, Pretty Polly, concerns itself almost exclusively with the murder at the heart of the story. I’ve developed a kind of Canadian version of my own that falls somewhere between the Old World and New World versions, by restoring some, though not all, of the parts of the plot that fall before and after the central event. The British song uses a four-line ballad form, while the American song, though not actually a blues harmonically, uses the three-line blues form for its stanzas. So essentially, I’m singing something that resembles the British Ballad, while using the American melody and structure. A true Canadian compromise!



This strange song emerged unbidden from some dark corner of my unconscious mind. It just more or less fell out of my mouth on to the floor. What prompted it is largely a mystery to me – though I do see in it what might be some very veiled references to some actual events in the news.



This old blues song is related to both British ballad (The Unfortunate Rake) and an American Cowboy song (The Streets of Laredo) and is one of a long line of songs that deal with the perils of venereal disease – though rarely explicitly. I’ve always felt tat there was something missing from the song that would explain why it starts out talking about the death of a woman, and the switches to talking about the funeral of her “sweet man”, so I wrote stanza for the middle of the song that both bridges that gap, and makes the underlying theme of the song a little more explicit.


10. TOBY

Brien Lavene was a war resistor during the Viet Nam war, who ended up in Montreal, like so many other young men of his generation. He became part of a thriving community of war resistors who gravitated to a war resistor resource centre on the second floor of the building of a socially conscious youth organization called “The Yellow Door”. It was in that era that the basement of that building became “The Yellow Door Coffeehouse”, a folk music venue that is still there, and which had a large population, in those days, of war resisting musicians. That was where I met Brien, and we became friends, and also where I heard him sing this song when he just written it. When the “draft dodger amnesty” came a few years later, Brien was one of the many who returned home, and that’s about when I learned his song and kind of developed my own way of playing and interpreting it. Brien came back to Montreal once, to perform at the 10th Anniversary celebration of The Yellow Door Coffeehouse. I also performed at that, and I played this song. That was the only time Brien ever heard me sing it, and he told me afterwards that he liked what I had done with it. That was the last time I ever saw or spoke to Brien, and I learned of his death a few years ago. At that point, I took up singing this song again, and over time, my arrangement continued to evolve musically, becoming somewhat darker and melancholic. Then, bass player, Jimmy Dobbins, who lives in California, who used to play with both Brien and I back in the day, in Montreal, sent me some lyrics from an unfinished song of Brien’s that he remembered – and those lyrics have now become part of my version of this song.



I was noodling around on the banjo one day, when the chord progression for this song started to find itself under my fingers. I kept working at it, building a verse structure and a bridge until the chord progressions in them felt natural and inevitable. At that point I could hear a melody in my mind. Then I thought, “I’d better make up some words for this, otherwise, I’m going to forget it.” (I think the majority of the songs I have written have a similar genesis – I stumble upon the music and add a quick draft of words so that I can remember it. And then I refine those words until they become a song.) Usually, I just start improvising, and some stream of consciousness words emerge unbidden that ultimately turn into a song. I rarely start with any preconceived idea, or topic, or theme – something just finds its way out of my subconscious, and only afterwards do I realize what is was that I was writing about. But this time, nothing was coming out – no words at all. So, once again, I looked to Rosemary for help. I snagged her as she was coming down the stairs, and I said, “Listen to this chord progression and tell me if it makes you think of anything – any image at all.” Then I played it for her, and she immediately said, “A woman riding on horseback across the desert being pursued by many men.” And there was the song! I just concentrated on the sound of the words and on the meter, and the story itself emerged as though it had already been written before I had begun.

Edited by - Marc Nerenberg on 10/12/2019 15:01:01

Oct 12, 2019 - 2:35:28 PM

52614 posts since 12/14/2005

I am amazed by the lyrics for Delia's Gone.
And you got me feeling sorry for the loss of your darling, which means you DELIVERED the message as if it happened to YOU.
IF any of my opinions were humble, it would be my humble opinion that convincing the audience that it happened to YOU, is a sign of greatness, much like I felt sorry for Nick Nolte, in "Mullhulland Falls".
Until later, when I realized the S.O.B. got PAID to PRETEND that he had just completely crumbled inside.

Now, if you'll excuse me, gotta go listen to the rest of the songs.

PS: OK, so you can play harmonica and pick banjo at the same time.
BUT--- Can you play harmonica and CHEW GUM at the same time??  cheeky

Oct 12, 2019 - 2:59:51 PM
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5298 posts since 1/16/2010

Thank you very much, mike gregory . To help you understand where those lyrics came from, I've added the album liner notes to the original post above.

Oct 13, 2019 - 5:56:27 AM
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18 posts since 3/6/2011

Marc Nerenberg and Don Borchelt BH best ! SJM

Oct 13, 2019 - 7:45:08 AM
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145 posts since 5/16/2017

Great stuff Marc. Thanks for posting this. I downloaded your album after I read Don's review, nice to read the liner notes and your thoughts on the songs. I'm really liking your unique style.

Oct 13, 2019 - 10:09:36 AM

5298 posts since 1/16/2010

Thanks very much, blazo !

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