- Pleading with Death:Folk Visions of Death (and Life) in the New South
In a small church of mountaineers in rugged, coal-rich eastern Kentucky, in a remote section in the 1930s, folklorist Jean Thomas listened as a church elder finished a hymn and then with “grave solemnity” told a strange story to introduce the next song:
Come a preacher here on the first Sunday of May, twelve month past, and norrated this tale: “There was a man who lived on the edge of Morgan or Breathitt, I can’t rightly ricollict which, but nohow he turned a deaf ear to the call of the Lord upon him to preach. He said he would not preach and by some cause his life were taken from him, so far as they could see. He lay there in this fix, cold as a rock for some time. He were laid out for dead. And after a long spell he were revived up with this song on his lips: “You have fixed my feet ‘til I can’t walk / You have fixed my tongue ‘til I can’t talk / Lord spare me over ‘til another year …”(Ballad Makin’ 200-2)
Thirteen year-old Sara Martin, daughter of a tenant farming family recently resettled at Skyline Farms, a New Deal agricultural community in the Cumberland Plateau of Alabama, was singing an austere hymn in the late 30s. It starkly told of Death confronting a terrified, overpowered mortal:
“I’ll lock your jaws so you can’t talk / I’ll fix your feet so you can’t walk / I’ll dim your eyes so you can’t see / This very hours come go with me / Now! Death now death consider my age / And do not take me in the stage…”(Martin) [End Page 105]
Also in the late 30s, but in the Black Belt of Alabama and in a style of heightened emotion, the domestic worker Vera Hall was singing a plaintive lament expressing death’s power, and the anguished terror of the lonely individual pleading with Death:
“He’ll fix your feet so you can’t walk / He’ll lock your jaw so you can’t talk / He’ll close your eyes so you can’t see / This very hour you must go with me / Oh, Death have mercy / Oh, Death have mercy / Oh, Death / Just spare me over another year… “(Hall)
These three fragments are but glimpses of a much longer song, a song that circulated across wide oral networks in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.
The song was “Conversation with Death,” also known as “Oh Death.” Of a sizeable catalogue of austere songs about death that were crafted and perpetuated in the early twentieth century, “Conversation with Death” was perhaps the pinnacle of the genre—powerful in its unrelenting vision, tightly cohesive in its artistic composition, extensive in its geographic scope. Like legions of others, the song is often attributed as “traditional:” its origins obscure and lost in time (Goodbye, Babylon 3:24). Even knowledgeable, astute music critics write of the song that it was “ancient,” that it was one “blacks and whites had known forever” (Marcus 156). This essay argues, in contrast, that locating the song’s distinct place in time opens up its rich layers of meaning. Though the song drew deeply on old layers of tradition, it was a new creation, and it reworked older tradition to convey provocative, countercultural meanings in its own time.
Analyzing the social position of those among whom it spread further unfolds the meanings of the song. When the song is adequately historicized and its context has been sketched, what emerges is nothing less than a paradoxical medieval-modernist vision of death—and of the body, and of alienation, and of life in this world. This vision was a critical part of something larger, a grassroots religious culture that flourished beneath the visibility of the well-known Baptist-Methodist Christianity of the Bible Belt South. Put differently, the song is a window into this hidden religious culture and the people who crafted and sustained it.
Establishing the origin of the song in time and place is an easy task, thanks to...