Music to Die For

Living in the South, I am confronted with the reality of American Country music whether I want it or not. Of course, I’m confronted with all of the other genres as well, though Classical and Jazz seem to be less ubiquitous than Rap and Country. However, I was making my way through a public venue recently (I can’t remember which one) when I began to listen to the song that was being shared for us all. It sang of death and sorrow. It was “old” Country, not far removed from the Church pew and pulpit. The accents were authentic and thick. The song led to a train of thought: why is death so far removed from our modern music?

I can remember a couple of hits in my teenage years that were ballads of sorts – “Teen Angel” (1960) – that mourned the tragic loss of a lover. Youth celebrates youth, and all of the naivete that goes with it.

Fame! I’m gonna live forever!

The cult of youth is a hallmark of late modernity. Being young sells and the illusion of being young sells even better.

This, I suspect, presents a difficulty for the preaching of the gospel. The gospel represents the tradition of our humanity, as well as the specific message of God-in-Christ. The Scriptures presume a world in which death’s reality is not housed in the confines of a hospital or in the polite and discreet parlors of a funeral home. It’s difficult to speak of trampling down death by death when death is obscured and hidden from our eyes.

When I was 10 years old, in the course of several months, one of my aunts was murdered, and another died of a long, wasting illness. The second death occurred, as I recall, very close to the event of Kennedy’s assasination. It was in that year that I first gave serious thought to the question of God. My reasoning ran: “Either there is a God or nothing makes any sense.” It’s a dark thought for the mind of a modern child. However, I suspect that it was not a dark thought for most children in most places throughout history. My three-month span of death-in-your-face was unusual only because I lived at a place and time in which the illusion of youth and a deathless existence was being promoted at every corner.

Though the songs of the South that spoke of “Beulah Land,” and an “Unbroken Circle” often dripped with an unvarnished sentimentality, they at least had the honesty of the true human condition. It takes money (lots of it) to sustain illusions. The richer you are, the easier it is to pretend that the unpleasant realities of life are not about you. Though Lazarus always sits just outside your gates, it is possible to build the gates in a manner that shields you from the shame of your true condition. It’s this same dynamic that makes it hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps my favorite Country/Folk song is one that draws on the reality of the gospel story, as well as its continuing irony in our time. It was derived from a poem written in 1877, and popularized in various versions by modern artists. I share the words as I learned them (in the old folk manner – as they were taught to me).

Only a tramp was, Lazarus that day,
He who lay down at the rich man’s gate.
Only some scraps from the table to eat,
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

He was some mother’s darlin’, He was some mother’s son,
Once he was fair, and, Once he was young.
Some mother rocked him, her darlin’ to sleep,
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

Jesus Christ died on Calvary’s tree,
Shed His life’s blood for you and for me.
They pierced His hands, His side, and His feet,
And they left Him to die like a tramp on the street.

He was Mary’s own darlin’, He was God’s chosen Son,
Once He was fair, and, Once He was young.
Mary she rocked Him, her darlin’ to sleep,
But they left Him to die like a tramp on the street.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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13 responses to “Music to Die For”

  1. Julana Avatar

    Last night I listened to/watched Capella Romana’s requiem for those who have died of the pandemic. We need this music.

    We used to sing “Go tell Aunt Rhody the old gray goose is dead,” in primary school. Sometimes I wonder if they allow the young ones to sing those songs, any more. “The gander is weeping;” “the goslings are crying.” Back then, people knew children need that music.

    Pay attention, remember, lament, give care.

  2. Byron Avatar

    There are genres of music that sing of death, but they are nihilistic, hopeless. I think it may be even more “…difficult to speak of trampling down death by death…” when death is seen as final and the end of all hope. It is so like us to get even something as wonderful and simple as hope wrong.

    The Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom may be the greatest homily written simply for it’s joyous hope and complete denial of the nihilism that seems to pervade human society.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It may sound strange but one of the great blessings of my life was being present as my late wife, Pamela, died. She was sung to her rest by our priest and a few friends from Church–and the angels.
    Then the wonder of the Orthodox funeral service — more lifting up.
    Three weeks later, in the Pascha celebration, I came to know … the rest of the story in a depth and reality that will never leave me.
    “Let my prayer arise in thy sight as incense.”
    One of the main crippling beliefs of modernity is that humanity can become immortal through our own efforts. One of the main pillars of the heresy.
    It is enticing to many but in those three weeks in March, 2005 I was shown the truth. It is God’s mercy alone that endures forever. We share in that mercy through His death on The Cross, His burial and His glorious third day Ressurection.
    We can share even more deeply through worship, repentance and feeding the Lazarus at our gate.
    Matthew 9:13 is also deeply instructive.
    May we each and all be aware this day of the abundance of mercy and grace that surrounds and interpenetrates us and united us this day.

    Glory to God for all things.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The nihilism that surrounds us is based on the worship of the false self and the exaltation of our fallen will.

  5. Susan Cushman Avatar

    Do you know where we can find music for the poem/song lyrics you shared? Or the name of the song? Thanks for another great post.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Peter, Paul, and Mary did a version, as did Hank Williams. Try Youtube. “Only a Tramp”

  7. Patrick Avatar

    Thanks for that, Father! I haven’t heard that song in a coon’s age. It reminded me, too, of another song by the same tune:

    On the wings of a snow white dove
    He sends his pure sweet love
    A sign from above
    On the wings of a dove

    When troubles surround us, when evils come
    The body grows weak, the spirit grows numb
    When these things beset us,he doesn’t forget us
    He sends down his love
    On the wings of a dove

    On the wings of a snow white dove
    He sends his pure sweet love
    A sign from above
    On the wings of a dove

    When Noah had drifted on the flood many days
    He searched for land in various ways
    Troubles, he had some,but he wasn’t forgotten
    He sent him his love
    On the wings of a dove

    On the wings of a snow white dove
    He sends his pure sweet love
    A sign from above
    On the wings of a dove
    When Jesus went down to, the river that day
    He was baptised in the usual way
    And when it was done, God blessed his son
    He sent him his love
    On the wings of a dove

    On the wings of a snow white dove
    He sends his pure sweet love
    A sign from above
    On the wings of a dove
    On the wings of a dove
    On the wings of a dove
    On the wings of a dove

  8. Matthew Avatar

    The words that you quoted are very close to the version on Peter, Paul, and Mary’s Late Again Lp, which is easy to find online. That album is excellent throughout, and also contains “Too Much of Nothing,” one of my all-time favorite Dylan songs. That and the whole album are well worth a listen.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There’s an excellent film with Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies, that features that song.

  10. Janine Avatar

    Amen, Father, Amen.
    Michael Bauman, thank you. There have been other times you posted here about your late wife and her own struggles, and I can relate to them. Today I struggle with what I realize are hard-wired feelings born of bullying through my upbringing (and even today in some of my family relationships), where really the point was for me to feel hopeless, helpless, isolated. These things get hard-wired, but I have found that Christ is the answer to them.
    Father and Michael, it seems the consumerist culture seems to teach us life can be perfect and should be perfect, and if it’s not, something is amiss. This of course also extends to pharmaceuticals to ease the pain. But I look at the Bible and see the struggles Israel went through to draw them to more dependence upon God, as well as Jesus’ teachings on discipleship, and I realize that just maybe these spaces of hardship are the places we turn to God. That twists my mind, but I believe that it is so. That old rugged Cross comes to mind!

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    If you love music sooner or later God will use it to touch your soul. The first time I ever heard Bridge Over Troubled Water my thoughts went to Mary, birth-giver of God. I was not Catholic and just had peripheral knowledge of her. At that point I was not religios at all. After hearing that song, however, my heart was awakened to her. About 25 years later, I walked into an Orthodox parish for the first time . . . and there she was welcoming me home. I am sure Paul Simon had no such intention but God did. The icon that I saw can be found
    at the bottom of this page: It still takes my breath away.
    Good music has a way of healing because it hits our hearts directly.
    “On the Wings of a Dove” is one of my favorites. Amazing Grace too.
    “There is a Balm in Gilead” especially Paul Robeson’s rendition. You can find several of his recordings on You Tube. It is an old hymn I sing to myself at times. It has been with me since high school.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My wife likes “The Dance” by Garth Brooks.

  13. Deacon John Vaporis Avatar

    Dear Father,
    If we keep them busy enough with a 24/7 news cycle, soccer games on Sunday, divisive politics, sports, the latest “Moral” fad, and public-school devotion to the state we then don’t have to think about our God, mortality, and church. Despite living in Massachusetts nearly all my life I love bluegrass, hillbilly music, Greek Rebetiko, and any other honest and real music in which beauty and God’s world is revealed.

    Thank you for your blog Father my family and I find it to be an island refuge.

    Two of my favorites:
    Bill Monroe – Mother’s Only Sleeping

    Bill Monroe – The Wayfaring Stranger

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