Brendan Hogan: I had a lot of fun with the song interpretations over the last couple weeks. There's just so much out there. This week we'll shift gears again, though. You and I have discussed this before: There's so much bravado and machismo in American music. It's part of the character. But bluster hides an insecurity, and it leaves open the possibility for table-turing, so-to-speak. So this week we'll hear from femme fatales in song; the deadly antihero of American folk music.
Mike Mellor: Yeah, the "black widow", or the "bad bitch" in hip-hop parlance. She's a staple of folklore at least back to the Tanakh, when Delilah seduced Samson into willful powerlessness. There's a song about that, as you know, popularized by Grateful Dead and brought by way of the Rev. Gary Davis, by way of Blind Willie Johnson, by way of God knows who. I've always had a deep fondness for the way Black culture used Old Testament stories for strength in their very specific tragic circumstances and this one has a levity under it that most of them don't.
Brendan: Yeah, Delilah's one of the baddest going. The prototypical femme fatale. What do you think is the correlation between this story and Black culture?
Mike: I'm not a theologian or an ancient historian but from my understanding Samson appears in the Book of Judges, which is a cyclical series of stories. The Israelites piss off God, God punishes them by putting them in the hands of their enemies, they repent, God sends a "judge" to lead them out, rinse and repeat. Samson was the judge who was supposed to deliver them from the Philistines.
Long story short, God's plan for him is to go to Philistine and wipe those motherfuckers out. On the way he falls in love with a Philistine girl, shit hits the fan, he loses his girl, loses family members and has more encounters with loose women while intermittently killing thousands of Philistines. Then he falls in love with Delilah, who is also Philistine. Delilah is fine as a motherfucker, but she's in cahoots with those motherfuckers, and she keeps probing Samson about what makes him so strong.
The common misconception is that his hair made him strong. God made him strong, and one of God's orders was that he never cut his hair. What happened is he kept teasing Delilah by saying this thing or that thing would make him lose his strength, but each time she tried it didn't actually work, until one day he said it came from his hair. She called a dude to cut his hair while he slept, his oath with God was broken, God jetted, Samson was weak and he was suddenly mortal...and outnumbered.
He strayed from the righteous path because messing around with some evil gal seemed better at the time. He and therefore all Israelites paid the price.
Now consider the lives of the first few generations of African (American) slaves. You're separated from your family, community, language, landscape, everything...captured, brutalized, and shipped as the human beasts of burden for a commercial enterprise on another continent. The only thing your cruel overlord motherfuckers give you is a propaganda education in Christianity, which ironically starts with stories of a star-crossed people suffering absurd persecution to win the love of a monotheistic God.
By the religion's very own metaphors, your class of people is in a struggle to prove to God that you are worthy of ultimate love, while God punishes your mistakes by throwing awful monstrous people in your way to fuck you up. You are an Israelite, the white people are Philistines and someday God will send you somebody to deliver you from bondage. But you have to watch out for those Delilahs, the agents of ruin masking as agents of pleasure.
Brendan: Brilliant. It is a story of oppression and searching for ways to climb out of misery.
I think the femme fatale can play a role that is a means out of suffering as well. That's why I love Nina Simone's version of "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera. Pirate Jenny isn't waiting to be delivered from misery and oppression. I interpret it as a story of coming to her wit's end and doing the "rising up" herself against her aggressors....with a little help from her fellow "pirates" in the black freighter. She's saying, "You people can gawk while I'm scrubbing these floors; while I'm taking constant shit from you. But the ship is coming in and we'll have your heads." And I love that it's Pirate Jenny, too. Not Pirate John. Am I wrong to think a femme fatale can play the role of empowerer, too?
Mike: I don't think so, especially in the 20th-21st Century. If anything it represents an evolution of the femme fatale as class struggle and feminism became major issues in the Modern West.
The traditional femme fatale leads you into danger by her manipulation of her desirability, mainly because that is one of the few powers women had in society. But as that changed with women voting, earning wages, engaging in economic and political struggles, etc., the nature of the archetype must change. Instead of bringing ruin to people by way of her desirability, Jenny is ruining people because people don't desire her, or value her humanity. But the fact remains that she is the agent of ruin.
Brendan: That's a great point. Focusing that kind of power onto a love interest is a familiar theme in folk music, whereas as using that power as a source of empowerment confuses the issue in a really interesting way, which helps make "Pirate Jenny" a great song. Evil is a kind of power, after all.
But as far as the kind of evil found in/with love, there are few who capture it better than the Delta musicians of the '20s and '30s. Take Robert Johnson's "Kind Hearted Woman". I still don't know if he's singing about one woman or two. If it's two different women, then the kind-hearted woman can't hold his interest like the evil-hearted one can. And if she's one in the same, what a complicated character she is: So evil that she'd kill him just to have it on her mind, just to know she did it, but yet he can't leave her alone. Now that's power.
Mike: That's a great question. If it is the same woman, is he being sarcastic by calling her kind-hearted? Is he saying she's the kind of person who'll turn on you? Acts nice but is plotting your demise? Or is she just a sociopath?
Brendan: Good point. I wonder if "kind hearted" is an odd regional term, or another part of the dialect that has since fallen out of use, like nation sack has. Either way, evil is the trumping call in Robert's relationship with that woman.
Mike: And that's not the only relationship he had with evil...
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