Oh Death

I don't watch much network television and I don't attend very many movies, but the other night I caught part of the Grammy Award Ceremonies. When Ralph Stanley came out onto the stage alone, I couldn't figure out what was going on. Mr. Stanley was not dressed as I am accustomed to seeing him and I thought maybe he had come to receive an award and wanted to "dress up" for the affair. He didn't look totally comfortable in formal dress but I overlooked it on the grounds that he didn't want to be embarrassed among all the "high flyers" of the entertainment world.

He surprised me when he started singing alone with no introduction and I don't think I have ever heard a voice as mournful as his was when he led off with "Oh Death, Oh Death." I can't remember if the audience broke into applause but I think they did which told me very quickly that they were familiar with the song. I was not.

Ralph Stanley finished his rendition of "Oh Death" and I decided to try and learn a little about the song that had left such an impression on so many.

I learned that it was from the soundtrack of a movie entitled "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" which was released in 2000 starring George Clooney and others. I arranged to get a tape of the movie and, even though it was a struggle, I sat through it. It has got to be the worst movie I have ever seen in my life. Now, not everybody agrees with me but that's all right. I know what I like and I know what I don't like and I did not like that movie. Maybe I'm too sensitive about the South, but I am not pleased when the South is presented in an unfavorable light. This movie presented every Southern stereotype of the Depression era that ever existed. I don't need to be told what it was like back then because I almost lived through those times and I've heard about them many times. I have never lived in Mississippi but I spent some time in Eastern North Carolina so I know what it was like in a rural area before they enjoyed all the comforts we city folk had.

Enough about the movie. The soundtrack was as good as the movie was bad. I immediately went out and bought the cassette ( have not converted to CD's and don't think I will ) and I have thoroughly enjoyed every song on the tape.

The more I listened to O Death, the more the song intrigued me. It is a traditional song which means nobody really knows who wrote it. It has been around for a long time and even though it may have been sung long before Ralph Stanley was born, the song obviously was written for him. The combination of his voice and the words make the song "chilling" as many have described it.

Another thing I learned about the song is that it has sold in excess of 2 million copies without one bit of advertising. These sales were based on exposure in the movie and word of mouth. It has blown the minds of people in the music industry because it wasn't supposed to happen and raises serious questions about how the industry will operate in the future. The "know it alls" in the music industry have been shocked at the sales of "Oh Death" and are hard pressed to explain it.

I couldn't make out all the words of "Oh Death" from the movie so I copied them down from the tape. You might like to see them if you didn't catch the movie or even if you did see the movie, you might not have been able to discern all the words. You gain the precise words of the song when you read them but you lose Ralph Stanley's mournful voice. As we all know, it's hard to have everything.

The words are as follows:

Oh Death

Oh Death, Oh Death,

Won't you spare me over 'til another year,

Well, what is this that I can't see,

With ice cold hands taking 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?

The children prayed, the preacher preached,

Time and mercy is out of your reach,

I'll fix your feet 'til you can't walk,

I'll lock your jaw 'til you can't talk,

I'll close your eyes so you can't see

this very air, come and go with me.

I'm Death, I come to take the soul,

Leave the body and leave it cold.

To draw up the flesh off of the frame,

Dirt and worm both have a claim.

Oh Death, Oh Death,

Won't you spare me over 'til another year?

My mother came to my bed,

Placed a cold towel upon my head.

My head is warm, my feet are cold,

Death is a-moving upon my soul.

Oh Death, how you're treating me,

You've closed my eyes so I can't see,

Well, you're hurting my body,

You make me cold.

You run my life right out of my soul.

Oh Death, please consider my age,

Please don't take me at this stage.

My wealth is all at your command,

If you will move your icy hand.

Oh the young, the rich, the poor

hunger like me, you know,

No wealth, no ruin, no silver, no gold,

Nothing satisfies me but your soul,

Oh Death, Oh Death.

Won't you spare me over 'til another year?

Won't you spare me over 'til another year?

Won't you spare me over 'til another year?