Author’s note: That this column appears on a day when the music world lost one of its icons (Merle Haggard) is purely coincidental – no disrespect is intended. Condolence to all of Haggard’s fans and family.
I’m in a pretty good mood today, so it’s a perfect time to cogitate on the rich tradition of death songs in bluegrass. Now, let’s be fair – it’s not a strictly bluegrass thing, You could fill an album with teenage death songs from the ‘50’s. But I don’t know any genre of music that embraces death as a song subject matter with the verve and determination of bluegrass.
Everybody dies, eventually, of course, but bluegrass songs focus on several types of the death:
Death of One’s Parents
Most of us, if we live long enough ourselves, will know the pain of losing parents, so this has a universal appeal. In bluegrass, though, the parents tend to die while their son is out “roaming” or “rambling”, often for long periods of time and many miles from “the old home place”. So these songs usually have an element of guilt to them. Not only are the parents dead, but the old home place is often gone ramshackle, or the “fields have turned brown”.
Death of a Lover
Interestingly, this usually happens at the hand of the other lover, who is usually named Willie. Why any woman in Appalachia would allow herself to be wooed by someone named Willie is beyond me – it’s not going to end well. If it’s any consolation, Willie is usually pretty miserable and regretful afterwards. Sometimes Willie has serious problems with sleep after brutally murdering poor Polly or Rose Connelly, and perhaps this provided some solace for those ladies in their final moments. A beautiful exception to this trend is Bill Monroe’s “Body and Soul” – which is about pure grief over a loss of a loved one.
Death of One’s Self
This is a tough song – how can the deceased sing? But it’s an interesting device, and it some cases it works well. The spiteful, jilted suitor in “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” fantasizes about his unfaithful girl grieving over his grave beneath the willow. What teenager hasn’t had that fantasy? Also effective is the stoic protagonist of “Long Black Veil”, who chose the gallows rather than admit his dalliance with his best friend’s wife, and thus dooms that secret lover to lonely nocturnal visits to his grave in mourner’s garb.
Now, I know I’m being a little flippant, but bluegrass has some beautiful songs that deal with the worst possible deaths – the deaths of innocents: children and animals. “I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling”, “The Leaves Mustn’t Fall”, “Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake” – these songs address sadness and tragedy that it would be very difficult to discuss, but singing these songs (while heart-wrenching) provides a catharsis of sorts. In plumbing these emotional depths, bluegrass music shows its legitimacy as an art form. It’s human music, and sometimes goes unflinchingly where most other music won’t go.