Grateful Dead: Samson and Delilah
The song Samson and Delilah is often credited to Rev Gary Davis, although he may not have been the original author. Davis was a real reverend, having been ordained as a Baptist minister. But the song is a secular retelling of the story from the Bible. There is no mention of Samson’s promise to God to neither touch wine nor cut his hair. Instead, the song focuses on Samson as a man whose woman wronged him. That makes the song consistent with many blues songs of the day.
The Grateful Dead added Samson and Delilah to their repertoire in 1976, and it was a regular feature of their live shows through 1978. It had a piano part played by Keith Godshaux, and his wife Donna added a soulful backing vocal. Donna was an erratic singer, often off pitch badly, but she was great on those rare occasions when she was in control of this issue. The Dead, however, did not make an official live recording of Samson and Delilah until 1980 for the album Dead Set, the version heard here. By this time, Keith and Donna were no longer part of the band. Brent Mydland taken over on keyboards, with his high tenor replacing Donna’s alto. Mydland had much better pitch control than Donna, but none of her soulfulness. He also played organ instead of piano on the song. For all of these reasons, The Dead stopped playing Sampson and Delilah regularly once Mydland joined the band. That said, the song still sounds great to me here, and has more spark than the studio version with Keith and Donna on the album Terrapin Station. The song opens with drummers Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzmann laying down a rhythm that is somewhere between a Bo Didley and a Second Line shuffle. Years later, in 2002, Bob Weir and his band Ratdog would play the song at the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, and they would be joined on stage by some local horn players. The sound quality of the recordings I heard of this are poor, and the musicians clearly did this without a rehearsal, but the jam hints at how glorious a full-on New Orleans treatment of the song could be. The next time any of you talk to the Neville Brothers, please suggest it.
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