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Learn about the song OH DEATH and the interesting people who have recorded it.

Back to Integrating Folklore, Music, & Traditional Culture in the K-12 Classroom

About T-Bone Burnett
In 2000, Burnett produced the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The award-winning score featured music from Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, and others performing traditional American folk music, blues and bluegrass - reminiscent of Burnett's 1986 self-titled release.

Listen to I am a Man Of Constant Sorrow by T Bone Burnett on O Brother Where Art Thou?
March 21, 2001 and Hear a snip of Oh Death sung by Ralph Stanley starting at 3:53.

Born in 1902, Bessie Jones learned songs like Oh Death from her grandfather Jet Samson (who died in 1941 at age 105) and others from the Georgia Sea Islands.

Lloyd Chandler A Conversation With Death song #30 - hear the show

Text from the Blue Ridge Institute's "Ballads from the British Tradition" LP I mentioned earlier. The album was done by Kip Lornell, Roddy Moore, and Blanton Owen.

Blanton wrote the notes:

3. OH DEATH - Dock Boggs, vocal and banjo.
Recorded in Norton [Wise County], Virginia, June 26, 1963, by Mike Seeger. 3:17.

Moran Lee (Dock) Boggs was born in 1898 in West Norton and lived near there most of his life. His renown as a singer and unique-style banjo player is widespread partly because of his "rediscovery" in the 1960s by Mike Seeger and his subsequent albums. In addition, his early commercial releases from the 1920s are classics.

Like many other country musicians who recorded commercially in the early days of recording, Dock Boggs' music career demonstrates the complexity of musical expression and influence during the 1920s and 1930s. His first music was strictly informal and was learned as any traditional musician learns it-from family and friends. Then, when record companies decided there was a market for country music, they sent people into the country to record it, and his music began to shift emphasis. Discovered and recorded by Brunswick Records, Dock then entered a professional music phase, traveling and playing shows at schoolhouses, dance halls, and the like, and selling his records. With the advent of records, the degree of outside musical influence on Dock's music and that of most other rural musicians increased tremendously. Dock was especially enamored by the blues, as seems obvious when listening to "Oh, Death." For more complete information on Dock's life and music, I suggest Folkways FH 5458, Excerpts from Interviews with Dock Boggs.

The song "Oh, Death," sometimes called "Conversations with Death," has appeared in a number of southern song and hymn books. It is -at best- only marginally a ballad. Although the story is told "straight" (the singer does not interject his own views directly), and it unfolds strictly through the use of dialogue, the narrative itself actually deals with an abstract condition rather than with a specific event. It is included here partly to illustrate just how far a song can drift toward lyric and still maintain the semblance of being a ballad. In oral tradition "Oh Death" is most often found in far southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina. Polly Johnson recorded ten verses of the song in 1939 for Emory Hamilton and it has been recorded by John Cohen from a number of western North Carolina singers. For a full tracing of the song back to its British antecedents, see "Death and a Lady: Echoes of a Mortal Conversation in English and American Folksong Tradition," an unpublished M.A. thesis done at the University of North Carolina in 1966 by Katherine Susan Barks. Dock learned his version of "Oh, Death" from his friend Lee Hunsucker in the 1930s and fit it to Homer Crawford's unusual D tuning of f#CGAD, starting with the fifth string.


What is this that I can see
With icy hands taking hold on me,
I am death and none can excel
I'll open the doors to heaven or hell.


Oh. death, oh, death, can 't you spare me over till another year?
Oh, death, oh, death, please spare me over till another year.

Oh. death, someone would pray,
Couldn't you call some other day,
God's children prayed. the preacher's preached,
The time of mercy is out of your reach.

I'll fix your feet so you can't walk,
I'll lock your jaws so you can't talk, Close your eyes so you can 't see
This very hour come go with me.

Death, I come to take the soul
Lea ve the body and leave it cold, To drop the flesh oft of the frame
The earth and worms both have a claim.


My mother come to my bed
Place a cold towel upon my head, My head is warm, my feet is cold
Death is moving upon my soul.

Oh, death, how you treating me Close my eyes so I can 't see,
You hurt my body. you make me cold,
You 're ruling 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.

The old, the young, the rich or poor,
Are all alike with me, you know,
No wealth, no land, no silver, no gold
Nothing satisfies me but your soul.



Lloyd Chandler. "Conversations with Death."
Atmosphere. Rounder 0028.
Burzil Wallin. "Conversation with Death." Old Love
Songs and Ballads from the Big Laurel, North
Carolina. Folkways FA 2309.
Dock Boggs. Folkways FA 2351.

Also from the movie hear Man of Constant Sorrow