I was cleaning the apartment the other day and had Pandora tuned to the Bill Monroe station. So it was country, it was bluegrass music, of the truest kind.
I listened for close to an hour. Then something made me stop and listen to Ralph Stanley sing "Who Will Sing for Me." Here's the first verse:
Oft I sing for my friends
When death's cold hand I see
When I reach my journey's end
Who will sing one song for me?
Then it struck me--and this is certainly not an original observation--how boldly and movingly country music talks about death. There are so many great, poignant songs about death in country music. The most famous is probably "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" by the Carter Family. This is the first verse of that song:
I was standing by my window
On one cold and cloudy day
When I saw the hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away.
Country music faces death. Looks it straight in the eye. Fears it. Respects it. It doesn't serve up any "Death, Be Not Proud" hokum. (John Donne, it does not work.)
Those people--and here I mean the purebreds, the mountain singers, those from deep in the hollers where there isn't an un-genuine note--tell the truth. That music will send chills down your spine. It can be stark, but it's always true, the best of it.
Stark. What is more stark than death? I want to look it in the eye. (Not for too long!) I want death to know--I see you. I know I will meet you one day. And you will prevail. These songs help me with that. They give me courage. (And, yes, I am afraid.) Especially at seventy-two, when I'm starting to hear footsteps.
Ralph Stanley wrote the most chilling, wonderful song about death. He sings it unaccompanied, a capella, just that pure mountain voice of his. It's called "O Death." Some of the lyrics are below. Nobody looked at death more clear-eyed than he. But you have to listen to him sing the song. (Click here to do just that.) It's something I can't describe.
Death, be proud. Ralph Stanley wrote a killer song about you.
Won't you spare me over til another year
Well what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands takin' hold of me
Well I am death, none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
Whoa, death someone would pray
Could you wait to call me another day?