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Songs About Death
Always Look on the Bright Side of Death
Death has long been a popular subject for songs. It is no surprise when you consider the mortality of humans. There are a lot of questions and different philosophies about death. So, it stands to reason that many singer and songwriters would address this in their music.
Songs about death tackle the subject from a variety of different perspectives. Some songs are about knocking on death's door, other deal with the death of love ones, other express concerns over one's mortality, other deal with the fear of dying, others tackle the question of what happen at death, while others take a tongue in cheek approach.
Right now, we will consider a small sampling of these types of songs. We will consider a list of 12 songs about death.
Fixin' To Die Blues - Bukka White
Just as a note I could of wrote exclusively on blues songs that deal with death. Death is a popular subject of the blues and this song is a prime example of that.
"Fixin To Die Blues" was written by Bukka White and was originally recorded and released by White in 1940. The song also ended up being reissued on the influential 1959 compilation album The Country Blues. The song was also notably covered by Bob Dylan and was included on his 1962 self titled debut album. It has since become somewhat of a modern-day standard.
When Dylan covered "Fixin' To Die" many assumed that White was dead. American folk guitarist John Fahey did not believe he was dead and made the effort to track him down in 1963. This lead to White becoming an important part of the folk/blues revival that was taking place in the 60s. White died of cancer on February 26th, 1977.
The song contrasts with many of the other blues "dying" songs because it addresses the impact that death has on surviving love ones instead of just focusing on death as a consequence of a hard living life.
Fixin To Die Blues by Bukka White (Video)
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Death Letter Blues - Son House
"Death Letter Blues" is one of the signature tunes of influential blues artist Son House. It was originally recorded and released in 1965. The song was also released as a single 20 years later in 1985.
The song is about receiving a letter that your lover died. The song's protagonist views the women's body at the morgue. It also deals with attending the funeral and struggling with depression. The song also draws comparisons to traditional blues songs such as Lead Belly's song of the same name and Muddy Water's "The Burying Ground". The song became a modern-day standard and The White Stripe's recorded a cover for their 2000 album De Stijl.
Death Letter Blues by Son House (Video)
And When I Die - Laura Nyro
"And When I Die" was written by Larua Nyro but it was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1966. Nyro recorded her own version for her 1967 debut album More Than a New Discovery. Two years later the song became a #2 hit on the US Billboard charts for Blood, Sweat and Tears.
"And When I Die" is one of the songs which addresses the question of where we go when we die. We can take for example the lyric "I can swear there is no heaven, and I pray there is no hell". The song also draws the conclusion "But I'll never know by living/Only my dying will tell".
It is amazing to reflect on the fact that Nyro was only 17 years old when she composed this song.
And When I Die by Laura Nyro (Video)
The Black Angel
The Black Angel's Death Song - The Velvet Underground
"The Black Angel's Death Song" is from The Velvet Underground's 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico.
The song refers to the Black Angel of Death. The song also contains foreboding and cryptic lyrics. Examples of this includes: "Not a ghost bloodied country/All covered with sleep/Where the black angel did weep" and "Cut mouth bleeding razor's/Forgetting the pain/Antiseptic remains cool goodbye". Not exactly sure what the lyrics mean, but they are sure ominous. Also, the sound of John Cale's electric viola clashing with the audio feedback also fits the feel of the lyrics. The song is disturbing and compelling all at the same time.
The Black Angel's Death Song by The Velvet Underground (Video)
Knockin' On Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan
"Knockin' On Heaven's Door" was recorded by Bob Dylan for the soundtrack for the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (which Dylan also acted in). Bob Dylan wrote all the songs for the soundtrack and composed the score.
The song tells the tale of a dying deputy. It has since become a modern-day standard being covered by numerous artists including Eric Clapton & Guns N' Roses. One of the more poignant versions of the song was by Warren Zevon who recorded the song for his 2003 album The Wind. The album came out just before he died from cancer on September 7th, 2003.
Knockin' On Heaven's Door by Bob Dylan (Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, Video)
(Don't Fear) The Reaper - Blue Öyster Cult
"(Don't Fear) The Reaper" is from Blue Öyster Cult's 1976 album Agents of Fortune. The song is about not being afraid of death.
"(Don't Fear) The Reaper" is also an example of a song whose lyrical intent is often misinterpreted. For example, the lyric "Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity" was taken by some as referring to a murder suicide pact. According to the lead vocalist and songwriter Buck Dharma the song was a "a love song where the love transcends the actual physical existence of the partners" not a song about suicide.
The song also gained increased attention in 2000 when it was featured in the classic Saturday Night Live Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken "more cowbell" sketch.
Don't Fear The Reaper by Blue Öyster Cult (Video)
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life - Monty Python
"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" was written by Eric Idle and was first featured in the 1979 Monty Python movie Life of Brian.
The song which was meant to be ironic and comedic has since become a popular sing along at public events such as funerals. According to a 2005 survey conducted by Music Choice it was the third choice among Britons for songs they would want played at their funeral.
"So always look on the bright side of death
Just before you draw your terminal breath"
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Monty Python (Video)
Lake of Fire - Meat Puppets
"Lake of Fire" is from the Meat Puppets 1984 album Meat Puppets II. The song got increased attention when Nirvana covered the song for their 1993 MTV Unplugged performance (the album was released in 1994). Nirvana played a total of three Meat Puppets songs and Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the band joined them on stage for those performances.
This is another example of a song which deals with where we go when we die. This tune deals with the subject of where bad people go when they breathe their last breath.
Lake of Fire by Meat Puppets (Video)
Fade to Black - Metallica
"Fade to Black" is from Metallica's 1984 album Ride the Lighting. I was also seriously contemplating using the title track for this list because it dealt with a prisoner who faced the electric chair. I opted for "Fade to Black" which is considered to be Metallica's first power ballad.
The song is dark as it addresses suicidal feelings. According to a 2003 MTV interview with drummer Lars Ulrich it was written at a time when he and lead vocalist James Hetfield were obsessing about death. Hetfield mentioned that the band did initially get a lot of flak for writing a suicide song but they "also got hundreds of letters from kids telling us how they related to the song and that it made them feel better." It just goes to show how music can serve as an emotional outlet.
Fade to Black by Metallica (Video)
I am Stretched on Your Grave by Sinead O' Connor (Video)
I am Stretched on Your Grave - Sinead O' Connor
"I am Stretched on Your Grace" is based on the Irish poem Táim sínte ar do thuama. The anonymous Irish poem has been translated into English on numerous occasions, but most notably by acclaimed Irish writer Frank O'Connor. The poem was first set to music in 1979 by Irish musician Philip King.
Sinead O' Connor's rendition is from her 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. The song grapples with the feelings of sorrow that are felt over the death of a lover.
Just as a note the video is from a 1988 live performance and it is a more stripped down version than the one that appears on I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got.
RIP Joey Ramone
In a Little While - U2
"In a Little While" is from U2's 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind. The song was a judgment call since the original intent of the song had nothing to do with death. Bono wrote the lyrics in a response to a hangover. But the song took on a new life after it has been discovered that it was the last song that Joey Ramone listened to before he died of cancer. This particularly touched Bono since Joey Ramone was a personal hero of his.
Regardless of the original intent, lyrics such as "In a little while, this hurt will hurt no more" has a certain poignancy when applied to someone lying on their death bed.
In a Little While by U2 (Video)
Ain't No Grave - Johnny Cash
"Ain't No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down)" is from Johnny Cash's 2010 posthumous album American VI: Ain't No Grave. The song was originally written by Claude Ely back in 1934.
The song has been cited as the last song that Cash ever recorded. Considering his deteriorating health and the fact that it was released after his death gives the song a certain haunting quality. It reflects Cash's beliefs concerning life after death.
Ain't No Grave by Johnny Cash (Video)
© 2013 CJ Baker