The American ballad O Death has enjoyed a revival of sorts in the years since Ralph Stanley’s haunted quiver reappeared in O Brother, Where Art Thou; before that, Dock Boggs had popularized the song during the Great Depression; his return to the stage in the 60′s would bring it back again for a few decades of canonical coverage. It is well known in the South, versions and variants scattered like wildflower seeds; it seems typical of the songs borne forth by the hills and hollers of the Appalachian mountains, but other early field recordings suggest African-American roots from the Georgia Sea Islands.
About the true origins of O Death we know little; the song is light on history, heavy on mystery. About death stories, we know plenty. For the deepest roots of our folk entwine love and death like yin and yang: the Ur-themes, dominant above all, in all literature.
It’s stark, this one: a plaintive prayer to death, and the hopeless litany of his cruel inevitability. Here, there is no love except in loss; though children pray, and mothers lay cool towels on fevered brows, death comes to all in time, unquestioning and all-powerful, unwilling to bargain. The conversational lyrics give the singer the impossible plea and its coldblooded response in turn, but we know the end is near; the chorus is a beggar’s howl, a whimper, even as it fades away.
And yet we pray, and croon: O Death, won’t you spare me over for another year. And in that it gives us license to rail against the dying of the light, it is, perhaps, the most human song of all.
O Death is often sung a capella in performance – perhaps because it is so fundamental, so elemental. Solo banjo coverage is common, too: raw and spare, with none so fearful and frail as Gregory Paul, none so haunted and still as Sam Amidon, none so sweet and beautiful as Ellie Bryan.
But the song has been treated more pliantly than most, from the bootstompin’ Americana of the Tarbox Ramblers to the psychedelic folk of The Horse Flies. The Sydney-based Bellyache Ben and The Steamgrass Boys come off gypsy gothic like an old-timey Tom Waits collective, while Jason Davis cuts a full-band countrygrass stepper. Farther afield, Jen Titus buries death under electronica and industrial noise; femmefolk collaborative Rising Appalachia turns in a mystical trance; Lauren O’Connell builds the song from its bones into a crashing country rocker. Tim Eriksen pares down to palpable tension with fiddle drone and chanting voice. Dawn Landes, in her earliest outing as solo artist Faun Fables, paints a sepia portrait in timbre and wood. And Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem play a sultry field gospel almost tender in its delivery.
Taken together, the songs comprise a dictionary of despair, an ethnography entire. Listen, as their sounds veer and yaw across the American map. Listen: how broad and deep our folkways run.
O Death: A Single Song Sunday Mix
[download the whole set here!]
- Faun Fables: O Death
- The Horse Flies: Oh Death
- Sam Amidon: O Death
- Gregory Paul: Oh Death
- Jen Titus: O Death
- Ellie Bryan: O Death
- Jason Davis: Oh Death
- Lauren O’Connell: O Death
- Rising Appalachia: Oh Death
- Tim Eriksen: Oh Death
- Tarbox Ramblers: Oh Death
- The Steamgrass Boys: Oh Death
- Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem: O Death
- Ralph Stanley: O Death
- Dock Boggs: Oh Death
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