"O Death", also known as "O, Death", "Oh Death" and "Conversations with Death", is a traditional Appalachian folk song, listed as number 4933 in the Roud Folk Song Index. The song is generally attributed to the musician and Baptist preacher Lloyd Chandler, but it was likely taken or adapted from folk songs already existing in the region.
Oh what is this I cannot see
With icy hands gets a hold on me
Oh I am Death, none can excel
I open the doors of heaven and hell[This quote needs a citation]
Won't you spare me over 'til another year?
Well what is this, that I can't see?
With ice-cold hands taking hold of me
Well I am Death, none can excel
I'll open the door to Heaven or Hell[This quote needs a citation]
In 2004, the Journal of Folklore Research asserted that "O, Death" is Lloyd Chandler's song "A Conversation with Death", which Chandler performed in the 1920s while preaching in Appalachia. Chandler's daughter-in-law, Barbara, asserted that "O, Death" was based on Chandler's composition.
However, Chandler seems to have taken the song from another source or at least based it on an older version.
Sinner, I come to you by Hebbin's decree;
This very night you must go wid me.
O-o death! O-o death!
How kin I go wid you?
"Jes' like a flower in its bloom,
Why should you cut me down so soon?
O-o death! O-o death!
How kin I go wid you?
This version seems closer to the version first performed by Dock Boggs than Chandler's "original" version.
Encounters with a personified "Death" featured in traditional English songs which possibly date to the 14th century, including "Death and the Lady" (Roud 1031), which was found in the oral tradition in early twentieth century England. "O Death" bears a strong resemblance to a broadside ballad printed in Ireland in 1870, entitled "A Dialogue Between Death & the Sinner" (pictured).
Country blues banjo player Moran Lee "Dock" Boggs recorded the song in the late 1920s. A recording from the 1938 National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C. by an unknown singer is held by the Library of Congress. Various folk music artists included "O, Death" on musical collections throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It is sung in the 1976 Barbara Kopple documentary Harlan County, USA by early union activist and coal miner Nimrod Workman, a well known folk music singer from Mingo County, West Virginia. In the 1960s, Alan Lomax recorded the folk and gospel singer Bessie Jones singing "O Death".
Lloyd Chandler's recording of "A Conversation with Death" appears on Rounder Records 1975 release High Atmosphere: Ballads and Banjo Tunes from Virginia and North Carolina, a collection of recordings made by John Cohen.
Among the most famous recordings is Ralph Stanley's version in the 2000 Coen brothers film (and soundtrack album) O Brother, Where Art Thou?, for which Stanley won the Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 2002. The soundtrack's producer, T-Bone Burnett, originally asked for a banjo rendition emulating Dock Boggs, but Stanley convinced him otherwise with an a cappella performance in the style of the Appalachian Primitive Baptist Universalist church. The song also appears in episode 7 of the second season of television series Fargo, inspired by another Coen brothers film of the same name. The version used in this episode was recorded by Shakey Graves with Monica Martin of PHOX.
"O, Death" has appeared twice in American television series Supernatural, both times in connection with the show's personification of Death, portrayed by Julian Richings: the 2010 episode "Two Minutes to Midnight" featured a version by Jen Titus; Lisa Berry performed the song in character as Billie in the 2015 episode "Form and Void". A version by Amy Van Roekel is included in the 2015 horror video game Until Dawn. The version sung by Vera Hall was featured in episode three of the first season of Altered Carbon, a Netflix original.
- A Hill to Die Upon recorded an extreme metal variant with harpist Timbre on Holy Despair (2014).
- Amy van Roekel, for the video game Until Dawn (2015).
- Bitter End, on Illusions of Dominance (2015).
- Camper Van Beethoven, with variant lyrics and melody (1988).
- Diamanda Galás, on Guilty Guilty Guilty (2008), All the Way (2017), and At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem (2017).
- English folk-rock band False Lights, on Salvor (2015)
- Faun Fables, on a reissue of Early Song (2004).
- Gangstagrass, on Broken Hearts and Stolen Money (2014).
- John Cygan as protagonist Silas Greaves in the video game Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (2013).
- Joshua Eustis (formerly of Telefon Tel Aviv), under the moniker "Sons of Magdalene" on Move to Pain (2014).
- John Reedy, on Starday Records, 1961.
- Kaleidoscope, on Side Trips (1967).
- Kate Mann, in Rattlesnake on the Road (2014).
- American metal band Khemmis recorded a doom metal version on a split EP with Spirit Adrift (2017) and for the video game series The Dark Pictures Anthology.
- Mike Seeger with the medieval ensemble Hesperus, on Crossing Over (1988).
- Rhiannon Giddens feat. Francesco Turrisi, on They're Calling Me Home (2021).
- Rising Appalachia with a spoken word interlude by Theresa Davis, on Wider Circles (2015).
- Sam Amidon, on All is Well (2008).
- Americana musician Shakey Graves, on Fargo (2016)
- Vera Hall, as Death Have Mercy (1959)
- Smith, Hazel (April 25, 2005). "HOT DISH: The Preacher and the Song". CMT.com. Country Music Television. Retrieved 2008-12-28.
- Lindahl, Carl (May–August 2004). "Thrills and Miracles: Legends of Lloyd Chandler". Journal of Folklore Research. Indiana University Press. 41 (2–3): 133–171. doi:10.2979/JFR.2004.41.2-3.133. ISSN 0737-7037. JSTOR 3814588.
- Chandler, Barbara (May–August 2004). "Why I Believe That Lloyd Chandler Wrote "Conversation with Death," also Known as "O Death"". Journal of Folklore Research. Indiana University Press. 41 (2): 127–132. doi:10.1353/jfr.2005.0001. ISSN 0737-7037. Retrieved 2008-12-28.
- "O Death (Roud Folksong Index S274695)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2021-10-20.
- Gilchrist, Anne G. (1941). ""Death and the Lady" in English Balladry". Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. 4 (2): 37–48. ISSN 0071-0563.
- "Death and the Lady (Roud 1031)". mainlynorfolk.info. Retrieved 2021-10-20.
- "Dialogue between death & the sinner - Old age & death - English ballads - National Library of Scotland". digital.nls.uk. Retrieved 2020-11-13.
- Sylvester, Ron (March 14, 2007). "Song 'Oh, Death' dates back to the late 1920s and before". Kansas.com. The Wichita Eagle. Archived from the original on September 26, 2013. Retrieved March 16, 2020.
- "Oh death". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 27 January 2019.
- Wichita Eagle, Op. cit.
- "O Death, by Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers". Alan Lomax Archive. Retrieved 2021-11-12.
- "Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers: Get in Union". Pitchfork. Retrieved 2021-11-12.
- "Old-Time Man" interview by Don Harrison June 2008 Virginia Living, p. 57.
- "O DEATH: ALTERED CARBON, VERA HALL, RALPH STANLEY, JEN TITUS, A HILL TO DIE UPON, KHEMMIS". No Clean Singing. February 4, 2018. Retrieved February 7, 2018.
- "Oh Death". Genius. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
- "O, Death, by Sons of Magdalene". Sons of Magdalene. Retrieved 27 January 2019.
- "John Reedy And His Stone Mountain Trio - Oh, Death". Discogs. Retrieved 27 January 2019.
- Lake, Daniel (2 May 2017). "Khemmis Have "A Conversation with Death"". Decibel Magazine. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
- "O Death lyrics by Ralph Stanley from O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack". Stlyrics.com. Retrieved 27 January 2019.