Conversation With Death / Oh, Death
Dock Boggs of Norton, Virginia, sang Oh Death to Mike Seeger on 26 June 1963. This recording was included in 1978 on the Blue Ridge Institute album in their Virginia Traditions series, Ballads from British Tradition.
Sarah Ogan Gunning sang Oh, Death in 1965 on her Folk-Legacy album Girl of Constant Sorrow. The album sleeve notes commented:
Oh Death is found in white and Negro tradition from Texas to the Georgia Sea Islands and is available today in widely contrasting settings: unaccompanied vocal solo, hillbilly duet (with guitars), bluegrass band. This stark conversational piece has attracted a number of short stylised explanations which place the song on the lips of a dying slave beaten by a cruel plantation mistress, or on the lips of a Kentucky hill-preacher stricken by the Lord for ignoring His call. Sarah adds an excellent narrative of her own: Elizabeth, her mother, used to sing this sad song while gathering herbs in the woods. One day she wandered near a concealed underground still. The moonshiners took Aunt Lizzie to be a ghost and in terrible fright abandoned the still (but only temporarily).
Peter Bellamy learned Conversation With Death from Dillard Chandler of North Carolina and sang it on his cassette Fair Annie: English, Irish, Australian and American Traditional Songs.
Dave Arthur with Pete Cooper and Chris Moreton (later known as Rattle on the Stovepipe) sang Oh Death in 2002 on their WildGoose CD Return Journey. This was reissued in 2010 on their compilation So Far, So Good. He noted:
The inevitability of death has fascinated people for thousands of years. Some have tried to cheat it with cryogenics, vitamin pills and mummification, and in Ingmar Bergman's classic film The Seventh Seal by challenging Death to a game of chess. None has succeeded. The personification of Death has been going on in Europe at least since the Middle Ages when dialogues between Death and his victim were enacted in the Morality Plays.
The ballad Death and the Lady (of which Oh Death is a comparatively recent American manifestation) has been around in Britain since the late 16th century. The version here was inspired by Virginia banjo-picker Dock Boggs who had a predilection for dismal sounding numbers.
On a personal note I find one verse in the old broadside versions particularly poignant, having lost my daughter-in-law, aged 27, to cancer: she left a three-year old daughter, Caitlin:
Death, be not so severe, let me obtain
A little longer time to live and reign
Fain would I stay, if thou my life wilt spare
I have a daughter beautiful and fair,
I'd live to see her wed, whom I adore
Grant me but this, and I will ask no more.
Sarah Ogan Gunning sings Oh, Death
“What is this that I can see
With icy hands taking hold of me?”
“I am death and none can tell;
I open the door to heaven and hell.”
Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Oh Death, oh Death,
Please spare me over till another year
“Death, oh Death, consider my age,
Please don't take me in this stage.
My wealth is all at your command
If you would move your icy hand.”
“No wealth, no land, No silver nor gold,
Nothing satisfies me but your soul.”
“Mother, come now to my bed,
Put a cold towel upon my head.
My head is warm, my feet is cold,
Death putting his shackles on my soul.
“Death, oh Death, please let me see
If Christ has turned his back on me.”
“God's children pray, His preachers preach,
The time of hope is out of reach.”
Peter Bellamy sings Conversation With Death
“Oh, what is this I cannot see
With that dread hand held hold of me?”
“Oh, I am death, none can excel,
I opens the doors of heaven and hell.”
“Oh Death, oh Death, how can it be
That I must come and go with thee?
Oh Death, oh Death, how can it be?
I am unprepared for eternity.”
“Oh, I have come to take your soul,
To leave your body and leave it cold,
To drop the flesh from off your frame.
The earth and worms both have their claim.”
“Oh Death oh Death, if this be true
Please give me time to reason with you.”
“From time to time you've heard and saw
I will close your eyes and I'll lock your jaw.
“I'll lock your jaw so you can't talk,
I'll fix your feet so you can't walk,
I'll close your eyes so you can't see,
And this very hour come and go with me.”
“Oh Death oh Death, consider my age
And do not take me at this stage.
My wealth is all at your command
If you will move your icy hand.”
“Oh, the old, the young, and the rich and poor
All along with me do have to go
No wage, no wealth, no silver and gold,
Nothing satisfies me but your poor soul.”
“Oh Death, oh Death, now let me see
If Christ has turned His back on me.”
“When you was called and asked to bow
You wouldn't pay heed and it's too late now.”
“Oh Death, oh Death please give me time
To fix my heart and change my mind.”
“Your heart is fixed, your mind is bound
And I have the shackles for to drag you down.”
“Too late, too late, to all farewell,
My soul is damned, I'm summonsed to hell.
As long as god in heaven do dwell
My soul, my soul shall scream in hell.”