Lyrics · Smart Thinking

At the end of the song “Delilah” is she alive or dead?

“Delilah”. You know the song, probably from Tom Jones’s version. You might recall the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s recording from 1975 as well (it was mentioned in a question on Ken Bruce’s Pop Master quiz this morning). There’s a recording on YouTube here in case you need to refresh your memory.

Literal versus Inferential

I am, by preference, a literal speaker and a literal listener. I usually place greater emphasis on the words that people use than the way that they are spoken. And I choose my words carefully. With the written word it’s all you can do, although by using emoticons, and then emojis, some people think that they can get away with careless or offensive phrasing – “because, hey, I’m winking at the same time”.

The alternative to being literal is to be inferential. That’s how my mother-in-law is. I realized this before my wife and I were married. We were at a Passover Meal (she’s Jewish, I’m Catholic). There was a window open on the other side of the hall. The conversation went something like this.

She asked, “Do you think it’s a bit cold?”

I replied, “No, it’s just right I think.” I took the question literally.

And she asked her son if he was cold. He gave a “No” as well.

It turned out that she was being inferential: she felt cold, and she wanted one of us to close the window, but she didn’t say “Could someone close that window for me please?” We had to work it out for ourselves.

And later, when the room heated up a bit, she asked “Do you think it’s a bit warm in here?” It was her way of asking us to open the window again.

Conversely some people will take a fairly straightforward comment and go looking for hidden meanings that might not be there.

Which brings me back to “Delilah”

I have discussed the song with many different people over the years, and they all assume that she’s dead by the end of it. “Of course she’s dead” they’ll say, but there’s nothing in the lyrics to confirm this. I believe in redemption and in my reading although the singer has a knife in his hand (“I felt the knife in my hand / and she laughed no more”) he doesn’t use it. In the second chorus he sings “So before / they come to break down the door / forgive me Delilah I just couldn’t take any more”. I choose to believe that when “they” do break down the door they’ll find him standing there, unused knife in hand, and a rather shocked, but still alive, Delilah. And maybe she does forgive him, because he asked her to, and because he “just couldn’t take any more”. Being literal I would say that if he has just killed Delilah isn’t it a bit late to be asking for her forgiveness? In my happier ending he’s asking for forgiveness for turning up at her place with a knife in his hand, but he hasn’t used it.

If I ever meet Barry Mason, who wrote the lyrics, I’ll ask him what really happened. We know that Tom saw “the flickering shadows of love” on Delilah’s blind, and as she deceived him he watched and went out of his mind. And, “at break of day when that man drove away”, he was waiting. He crossed the street to her house, she opened the door, and she stood there laughing. And then she stopped laughing. But what happened next?

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