Grant us grace always to live in such a state that we may never be afraid to die, so that, living and dying, we may be thine… — The Book of Common Prayer
I was sad to read the other day that bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley (sometimes called Dr. Ralph Stanley, for his honorary doctorate of music from Lincoln Memorial University) had died. I’ve never studied his catalogue in depth, but like everyone else, I knew his performance of “O Death” from Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Originally, it wasn’t meant to be a bare-bones acappella number, but Stanley convinced the producers to let him sing it Primitive Baptist style, like the church where he grew up: no banjo, no guitar, no nothin’. Just Ralph’s reedy, old man voice, asking death to spare him over ’til another year.
When I first heard “O Death,” I thought it was one of the most remarkable songs I’d ever heard. Though virtually tuneless, it is arresting, even riveting, in Dr. Stanley’s able hands. It has the primal quality of so many early American folk songs—the kind of songs that are unerringly in tune with all that we know, and love, and fear. There is no cheap sentiment here, no sanctimony or pious platitude to cover the naked truth.
If you look closely at the lyrics, you can tell that the speaker is meant to be a younger man who is not yet ready to die. He’s being tended by his mother, and he asks the ice-cold specter to “please consider his age.” This makes it all the more striking for Stanley to cover it as an old man full of years. The phrase “please consider my age” takes on a different meaning, almost like a private joke between Old Ralph and Old Death.
It’s welcome news that Stanley remained implacably Christian to the last. This adds yet another layer to this, his most haunting performance. It is a reminder that Death is merely the means of separating soul from body. It summons us to heaven or to hell, but God alone decides which. I close my eyes and try to picture Stanley as he must be now: as C. S. Lewis said, a creature of surpassing brightness which, if you could see it, you would be strongly tempted to worship.
Well what is this that I can’t see,
With ice cold hands takin’ hold of me?
Well I am death, none can excel,
I’ll open the door to heaven or hell.