Friday, February 17, 2012

“Oh Death”

Banjo Friday is upon us again, & as you can see from the post’s title, we have another cheerful banjo tune for your enjoyment! Actually, if you’ve been following along regularly, you know what’s coming: more Dock Boggs.

I hadn’t planned on February being Dock Boggs month on Banjo Friday—but I also hadn’t planned on my own February being so busy. After two posts about Boggs on the previous two Fridays, I said, “What the heck—let’s make it a set of three.” Next week will of course feature bluegrass as always on the last Friday, so no Dock Boggs then.

In my post on “Country Blues” I mentioned Boggs’ version of the traditional “Oh Death”—for one thing, it shares the odd f#CGAD tuning with that song. But if “Country Blues,” & other Boggs’ standbys like “Sugar Baby,” “Pretty Polly” or “Danville Girl” are portraits of the “Old Weird America” (to use Greil Marcus’ term), then “Oh Death” seems to be even more ancient—Medieval in the sensibility of its lyrics, jaggedly modal in its tune & melody—the latter accentuated by the fact that Boggs didn’t record this until his “second career” in the 1960s, so when he made this recording for Mike Seeger & Folkways in 1963, he was well into his 60s. Not only did he have the perspective of a long hard life to bring to his performance of the song, but his voice was no longer a young man’s. Here the vocal “imperfections” almost all serve to strengthen the overall performance, & there’s no question that Boggs’ singing & playing were always, whether young or old, powerful, moving & singular.

There have been other versions of “Oh Death”—Ralph Stanley does a more bluegrass version, which is particularly notable for Stanley’s singing—another powerful voice—but which for all its vocal richness (including some hauntingly beautiful harmony singing) doesn’t have the force of Boggs’ more ancient & modal rendition. Once you start to introduce major chords into these real old-time songs something just seems to be lost. Of course, Boggs' melody isn’t strictly minor either—like much of the oldest Appalachian music, as well as the old blues (especially the old blues from the Delta region), the melody weaves back & forth between minor & major intervals & also involves what are called “suspended” intervals—tones that stand in place of the tell-tale minor & major thirds.

“Oh Death” can be found on Dock Boggs: His Folkway Years 1963-1968, which contains the material he recorded during his second career during the folk music revival.  There’s also a powerful live version on The New Lost City Ramblers Old Time Music on Vanguard, a really delightful disc that features the Ramblers not only with Boggs, but also with the likes of Mother Maybelle Carter, Cousin Emmy, Roscoe Holcomb & more, all recorded at the Newport Folk Festival.

“Oh Death” is an amazing song—prepare to be moved.

Photo of Dock Boggs performing in the 1960s links to its source


  1. That bridge between the white and black rural folk forms is so apparent here, as are the ancient British modal roots. As you say, the vocal idiosyncrasies add greatly to the rendition. Weird and wonderful - just as we like it!

  2. Amazing song, and I was moved, have tears in my eyes right now. Through your blog I am learning so much about music and the people who create it. Thanks!

  3. Interesting. I'd only heard Ralph Stanley do this a capella, so the modal implications pretty much stayed the same as this version by Dock Boggs. I don't know about the music, but the lyrics are definitely medieval. The catastrophic effect of the plague on Europe in the 14th Century certainly had a long-lasting effect on European culture and arts.

  4. I have been moved by this, but not in a sad way. It's interesting how you can feel like tapping your toes to a song about staying of your death.

    I found myself nodding my head, and shrugging my shoulders to that rhythm.

    If death's a comin', I want it to be to THAT beat!

  5. Hi Dick, Joyce, Roy & Kat!

    Dick: Absolutely! Thanks so much.

    Joyce: I'm so glad that you're liking the music here & learning some things along the way--thanks a lot!

    Roy: Yes, his a capella version obviously has the same modal character, but he also does a full bluegrass band version & that is played as a standard 3-chord major song. The plague had a huge effect on European sensibility, for sure. Thanks!

    Kat: Thanks! That's the way to take it.


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.