Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys – "Oh, Death" (2000)

Oh, death
Oh, death
Won’t you spare me over till another year

It looks like death has spared you and me for 2015.  

Technically, of course, the year isn’t quite over.  But if we refrain from going out tonight, getting all liquored up, and then hopping in a car and driving like a maniac, we’ll almost certainly make it to 2016.

But what about 2017, or 2018?  How many more times will Death spare us over till another year?

Lloyd Chandler
There’s considerable disagreement over the source of today’s featured song.  Some scholars believe that “Oh, Death” was written in 1916 by Lloyd Chandler, a Free Will Baptist preacher from western North Carolina, after he received a vision from God.

Click here to read a 2004 article in the Journal of Folklore Research that gives Chandler credit for the song.  

Edvard Munch's "By the Deathbed" 
“Oh, Death” is a dialogue between a young man dying before his time and Death, who tells him exactly what he can expect:

I'll fix your feet till you can't walk
I'll lock your jaw till you can't talk
I'll close your eyes so you can't see
This very hour, come and go with me
I'm Death, I come to take the soul
Leave the body and leave it cold

The young man’s mother tries to comfort him, but to no avail:

My mother came to my bed
Placed a cold towel upon my head
My head is warm, my feet are cold
Death is a-movin' upon my soul

President Garfield on his deathbed
Desperate to live, the young man begs for mercy, then tries to bribe Death:

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

But Death is unmoved by his pleas:

The old, the young, the rich, the poor
All alike to me you know
No wealth, no land, no silver, no gold
Nothing satisfies me but your soul

The notorious “BTK killer,” Dennis Rader, killed ten people in the Wichita, KS area between 1974 and 1991. 

Dennis "BTK Killer" Rader
Rader wrote a poem titled "Oh! Death to Nancy" that was based on the lyrics to “Oh, Death."  (The poem was about his seventh victim, Nancy Fox.)  Rader was apparently familiar with a Wichita State University professor who had discussed “Oh, Death” in class.

Click here to read more about the BTK killer, who was finally apprehended in 2005 – which was 31 years after he killed his first victim and 14 years after he murdered his tenth and last victim.   (By the way, “BTK” stood for “bind, torture, kill.”)

“Oh, Death” was first recorded by the legendary banjo player “Dock” Boggs in the 1920s, and has been covered by a wide variety of musicians since then.  Ralph Stanley did an a cappella solo version on the soundtrack to the 2000 movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but we are featuring the 1977 cover of the song he did with the Clinch Mountain Boys.

Here’s “Oh, Death”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:


  1. I like this arrangement of the song, and really recommend a visit to the Ralph Stanley museum. I visited it a couple of years ago when I was following the Crooked Road in Virginia. Kind of a depressing way to start the year, dontcha think? - Joyce

  2. I'm ending the old year, Joyce – an important distinction!