Saturday, January 06, 2007

Conversation with Death

What is this I cannot see, Icy hands take hold on me
I am death and none can excel, I open the door to heaven and hell
Death oh death how can it be, That I must come and go with thee?
Death oh death how can it be, I’m unprepared for eternity?
I have come for to get your soul, Take your body and leave it cold
I'll drop the flesh from of'n your frame; The earth and worms both have their claim

Oh death oh death please give me time, To fix my heart and change my mind.
Your mind is fixed, Your heart is bound; I’ve got the shackles to drag you down.

Whoa death someone would pray, Could you wait to call me til another day?
The children pray the preacher preached Time and mercy is out of your reach;
I’ll lock your jaw so you can’t talk I’ll lock your knees so you can’t walk
I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see, This very hour you go with me

My mother came to my bed and placed a cold towel upon my head
My head is warm my feet are cold, Death is a movin' upon my soul ;
Oh death how you're treatin me You close my eyes so I can't see
Well you're hurtin my body you make me cold, You run my life right out of my soul.

Oh death please consider my age, Please don't take me at this stage
My wealth is all at your command, If you'll remove your icy hands;
Oh the young the rich or poor Are all alike to me you know
No wealth no land no silver or gold, Nothin' satisfies me but your soul
Your heart is fixed, your mind is bound, I have the shackles to drag you down
Too late! too late! to all farewell, Your soul is doomed, you're summoned to hell.
As long as God in heaven shall dwell, your soul your soul shall scream in hell.

Oh, death Oh, death Won't you spare me over til another year?

Won't you spare me over til another year?

"A Conversation With Death" is an old folk song, possibly with Appalachian origins. It may be best known from the film and soundtrack of "O Brother Where Art Thou?", sung by Ralph Stanley. If anyone has any information on its origin and background, I'd be pleased if you'd post it in the comments.

It appears in several variations, and what I post here is a composite of several. It is conceived as a conversation between death and a dying person. I don't take it as an overly scriptural song, but one that is interesting in the genre of folk songs. I thought that overall the dying person has mostly "Arminian" or Pelagian notions, while death leans towards predestinarianism.


Anonymous said...

Here are a couple of links:

The Ballad Index:

Lots of threads at the Mudcat Cafe:

Of course Death is a predestinarian; he's got a pretty good track record.

amity said...

Will, how is death (in this song, of course) a predestinarian? I don't see it.

amity said...

Reading it over again, I see the "your mind is fixed, your soul is bound" (have I got that right?) but I also see the "too late, too late!"

clinch64 said...

I have an old album by Vernon Dalhart which has a variation of this song on it. Although no actual date is given, I would guess it to be in the range from the mid 1920's to the early 1930's, as this was when Dalhart was at the peak of his popularity. The song is titled "Conversation With Death" here.

By the way, Vernon Dalhart had the very first million selling vocal recording, "The Prisoner's Song", recorded in 1925. He was born Marion Trye Slaughter in Jefferson, Texas.


Anonymous said...


It was just a joke of course. Death's track record of doing its job--there's been a death for every person born so far--makes it easy for it to believe in predestination.

And don't cite Elijah or Melchizedek, because there are serveral people who died *twice* (poor Lazarus).

R. L. Vaughn said...

When I wrote that about personified death and predestination vs. the person and pelagianism, it was really just an offhand remark. As I was listening to this song on the "Songcatcher" CD one day, I just kind of thought to myself, "how like man to think he can die when he chooses, and how wise of death to know when he is sent it is too late for bargaining."

BTW, Will, your comment makes me think of the "Poor Lazarus" song on the O Brother CD.