The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Death and the Lady

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Posted by Vole

Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy with their version of Death and the Lady

As I walked out one day, one day
I met an aged man by the way.
His head was bald, his beard was grey,
His clothing made of the cold earthen clay,
His clothing made of the cold earthen clay.

I said, “Old man, what man are you?
What country do you belong unto?”
“My name is Death—have you not heard of me?
All kings and princes bow down unto me
And you fair maid must come along with me.”

“I'll give you gold, I'll give you pearl,
I'll give you costly rich robes to wear,
If you will spare me a little while
And give me time my life to amend,
And give me time my life to amend”

“I'll have no gold, I'll have no pearl,
I want no costly rich robes to wear.
I cannot spare you a little while
Nor give you time your life to amend,
Nor give you time your life to amend”

In six months time this fair maid died;
“Let this be put on my tombstone,” she cried,
“Here lies a poor distressed maid.
Just in her bloom she was snatched away,
Her clothing made of the cold earthen clay.”

(Repeat first verse)

3 comments on “Death and the Lady

  1. Sunday 4th January 2015 at 4:11 pm

    […] “These three essays are about Lloyd Chandler (1896-1978), an itinerant Freewill Baptist preacher from Madison County, North Carolina, and the assertion that he authored “Conversation with Death” (better known by the title “O Death”) after receiving a God-sent vision in 1916. The notion of Chandler’s authorship has encountered great skepticism. The essays examine, from both insider and outsider perspectives, the reasons why people who knew Lloyd Chandler believe in his authorship while those who did not know him reject the notion out of hand. Barbara Chandler bases her argument that Chandler wrote the song on her personal knowledge of his life and character. Carl Lindahl presents the verbalized memories of Chandler’s family, friends, and fellow preachers to explain what the song meant to Chandler himself and how he played upon the elements of fear and pain implicit in the song to craft performances that listeners found unforgettable. Using a historic-geographic approach, Lindahl examines the “O Death” song-complex and argues that his intensive research has failed to find any version that shares as much as one full line with the Chandler text predating 1927, although previous folklorists traced the song to sixteenth-century British broadsides. In his afterword, Lindahl describes his relation to the family and his growing commitment to advocacy.” Now, I have no interest in significantly entering the debate.  However, the key issue Lindahl describes takes us right where I want to go next.  The problem he encounters in trying to prove Chandler’s descendants’ claim is that there exists a great deal of variety in performances of this song, much more so than one might expect from a song written in 1916.  There seem to be, in fact, as many variants of this song in the African-American tradition as among white folks. Lindahl’s discussion of the various sources and their relationship is interesting. He can identify no primary source that proves an earlier date for the song than Chandler’s claim, and his speculation about such widespread variety is ultimately based on the well-documented fact that Chandler took this song on the road through the South for years as a travelling preacher, singing it for anyone who’d listen.  People, presumably finding it as compelling as do many today, took it from there and adapted it to fit their own communities and aesthetics, cross-pollinating as they went. Perhaps he’s right, though it doesn’t matter here.  I rather want to spend the rest of the post hearing some of those variants!  You can decide for yourself about the debate, or just enjoy yourself and listen – or do the first when you’re done listening! The standard theory which Lindhal disputes is that “Conversation with Death” was likely a product of the religious revivalism of the American South sometime in the 19th century, when both blacks and whites would have been exposed to the original song.  Scholars tend to see the prototype that inspired “Oh, Death” or its direct ancestor as being one imported from Britain and known in America, namely “Death and the Lady.”  As Lindhal points out, it has little in common lyrically with “Oh, Death”, but I think you’ll want to hear it anyway. “Death and the Lady” – Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy (Spotify)     Lyrics to “Death and the Lady” […]

  2. Georgia

    Friday 15th March 2013 at 6:12 pm

    This is a gem!

  3. Saturday 23rd February 2013 at 8:51 am

    This is a….rigorous song, indeed, and by a strange (well, to me) coincidence, I heard the version by Shirley and Dolly Collins, recorded40-odd years ago, just yesterday. That version, too, is wonderful. The ultimate musical “memento moro?”

    • Vale

      Sunday 24th February 2013 at 3:04 pm

      That sent me off to listen to Shirley and Dolly, and I see what you mean GM, in comparison there’s a twist of bitters in the middle of these verses that brings the chill of the grave into the song.

      I love the simplicity here and the beautiful interplay of guitar and voice – Carthy and Waterson at their best.

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