Delia’s Gone (Psalm 38)

This week we wrap up our study of Richard Beck’s book Trains, Jesus, and Murder – The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. Please read chapter 13, Delia’s Gone, chapter 14, Hurt, and Chapter 15, The Man Comes Around. These three songs compose “Section 4: Suffering and Salvation” of our book in which an aging Johnny Cash sings from the perspective of an old man looking back on and evaluating his life, not unlike the writer of Ecclesiastes.


In 1954 at the age of 22, Johnny Cash signed his first recording contract with Sun Records. In 1958, he moved to Columbia Records. Almost thirty years later, in 1986, Columbia dropped Johnny Cash. At age 54, Cash was without a record label for the first time in 32 years. Music had moved on, and like many older music stars, the public enjoyed the older songs to anything new that he was producing. Cash moved to a different label and spent time in the country-music pasture of Branson, Missouri.

In 1993, Johnny Cash met Rick Rubin who was a founder of Def James Records. Rubin produced primarily rap albums from groups such as Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys and heavy metal albums from The Cult and Slayer. Rubin had just started a new label called American Recordings and Cash was his first act. Cash’s first album under Rubin, American Recordings (I), won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and American Recordings (II) won the Grammy for Best Country Album. American Recordings (IV) won the 2003 CMA Award for Best Album of the Year when Cash was age 71. Johnny Cash was back.


“Delia’s Gone” was the first single released from the album “American Recording (I)” (“Drive On” was the other single released from this album.) The song is a murder ballad told from the perspective of the perpetrator. The song is based on a Christmas Day murder that took place in Savannah, Georgia in 1900 between two young lovers. Cash will take the story and spice it up with the murderer having to shoot his lover twice with a machine gun before she dies. Because of its violent theme, MTV refused to play the song’s video.

But like “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Delia’s Gone” is a song of regret from violence, not a glorification of the violence. In jail for the murder, the man is haunted by the patter of Delia’s feet around his bedside. His greatest punishment is being haunted by his sin.


The gospel message in “Delia’s Gone” is that the sin is its own punishment. The man doesn’t need to wait on the civil authorities or God himself to mete out retribution, the punishment flows from the act itself. The man is locked in a spiral of despair as he is haunted by his victim’s footsteps. (No unlike Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.) Internal guilt exceeds any external punishment. Remorse is hell.

The song gives us an example of the limitations of punishment. Punishment does not bring peace or reconciliation. The man is being punished in jail, but he can never escape the guilt. No matter how long he sits in prison or even if he is slated for execution, he will never be at peace because punishment can never make amends. The guilt and the shame of what he has done are always present.

This is the teaching of the Church. Our guilt and shame are always with us. Guilt is when we hear the patter of the feet of the wrongs we have committed. Shame is when we understand that the wrongs are simply a manifestation of our fallen nature. Like the singer, we too cannot escape this hell on our own. As Paul says, we are captives in this hell waiting for a deliverer. Rom. 7:24. Salvation is the freedom from this hell.

The Church also teaches that our salvation does not lie with us. We are incapable of freeing ourselves. Salvation from the guilt and shame of the patter of our sins and fallen nature lies with God in Christ. As our prayer of humble access says:

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

1979 BCP 337


Delia, oh, Delia Delia all my life
If I hadn’t have shot poor
Delia I’d have had her for my wife
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone

I went up to Memphis
And I met Delia there found her in her parlor
And I tied to her chair
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone

She was low down and trifling
And she was cold and mean
Kind of evil make me want to Grab my sub machine
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone

First time I shot her I shot her in the side
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone

But jailer, oh, jailer Jailer
I can’t sleep ’cause all around my bedside
I hear the patter of Delia’s feet
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone

So if your woman’s devilish
You can let her run
Or you can bring her down and do her
Like Delia got done
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone

For my iniquities overwhelm me; *
 like a heavy burden they are too much for me to bear.

My wounds stink and fester *
 by reason of my foolishness.

I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; *
 I go about in mourning all the day long.

For in you, O Lord, have I fixed my hope; *
 you will answer me, O Lord my God.

I will confess my iniquity *
 and be sorry for my sin.

O Lord, do not forsake me; *
 be not far from me, O my God.

Make haste to help me, *
 O Lord of my salvation.

Psalm 38:4-6, 18, 21-22

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