Episode 28: Vive la Mort

Floor Decoration from the Church St. Paul de Vence, Provence

A carving on an 11th century sepulcher in the church of St. Paul-de-Vence, Provence. Photo by dab.

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Something a little different for this week, but keeping with the theme of the Art of Dying.  These are songs and notes I’ve previously compiled that illuminate different aspects of the subject–as we’ve seen, “death” itself is an illusion, but these songs can help us to examine our own feelings about it.  The links will take you the download page on amazon.com if you would like to purchase the CD or song (and help with the work of this blog).  (There are also sites where I’m told you can listen to/download most of the songs for free.)

Nachiketas said, “A doubt is widely entertained as to what becomes of a man after death.  Some hold that after death he goes into extinction; other hold it is not so.  I want to know the truth about this matter.”¹  Katha Upanishad

Well, you and everybody else, Nachiketas.  That is the central question of all religious traditions, and the one that also leads to the master question of the philosopher: “What am I?”  As Socrates says in Phaedo,  “The fact is, those who tackle philosophy aright are simply and solely practising dying, practising death, all the time, but nobody sees it.” (Rouse translation)  As I see it, without the prospect of death facing us, we’d all just be fat and happy and oblivious.  We need death to wake us up—hence “Vive La Mort.”

Everyone I know in my age group has lost one or both parents, and in many cases a spouse, lover, or sibling.  And one day, friends—it could be today—it will be you and me.  So I hope you won’t think I’m too strange for putting this collection together.  It has helped me to examine my own attitudes, and if it inspires you to examine your own, or to “tackle philosophy,” it will have done some good.

Dark Was the Night, by Blind Willie Johnson.  From Dark Was The Night – Cold Was The Ground, Columbia Legacy.  The feeling most associated with death is fear, and this piece, recorded in 1927, embodies it better than any other I know.  It’s not explicitly about Death, but I can sure feel his cold hand on my shoulder whenever I hear it.  An early review spoke of Johnson’s “violent, tortured and abysmal shouts and groans and his inspired guitar playing in a primitive and frightening religious song.”  Brrrrr.

Pavane for a Dead Princess by Maurice Ravel.  From Together/Julian Bream & John Williams RCA. For a counterpoint, we have this beautiful and dignified piece written in a major key.  Although originally composed for piano, and with adaptations for many other instruments including orchestra, I really love this arrangement for two guitars.  It just seems to me more antique and more poignant.  No fear here, just a stately acceptance.

Bang the Drum Slowly, by Emmylou Harris and Guy Clark.  Performed by Emmylou Harris.  From Red Dirt Girl, Nonesuch Records.  Another emotion too often tied to death is regret, for actions not done, words not said.  So make sure the people you love know you love them, and the people you can’t stand—well, at least try to develop compassion for them.  When we at last find ourselves in the presence of universal, unconditional love, whether we experience it as heaven or hell will depend on how purely we ourselves have learned to love.

The Art of Dying by George Harrison.  From All Things Must Pass [BOXED EDITION], (Reissue) Capitol Records.  I don’t know if George read Socrates, but he had the same idea.  I often wonder if he listened to this when he knew the cancer was terminal.  “Searching for the Truth among the lying….”  George, you are missed.

1914 by David Olney.  Performed by Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, from Western Wall: Tucson Sessions, Asylum Records.  Of all the ways that have been devised to die, to me the most incomprehensible is the wholesale loss of young men, and now women, in war.  Not to mention the loss of civilizations.  Objectively I know that destruction is part of creation, but thousands of men dying horrible deaths far from home?  This is the saddest song I’ve ever heard.

I Know You by Heart, by Diane Scanlon and Eve Nelson.  Performed by Eva Cassidy, from Eva By Heart, Blix Street Records.  This song beautifully expresses the acceptance of loss, reminding us that we don’t have a right to the people we love.  For those of you who are not familiar with the cult of Eva Cassidy, may this serve as an introduction.  I think she is simply amazing.  She can melt your heart with a deceptively simple song like this, but don’t be fooled; when this woman wails the blues, as she does on, say, Stormy Monday, she will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.  Like George Harrison, she died of cancer much too young, in 1996 at the age of 33.  But, no, we didn’t have a right to her either.

Just a Little While to Stay Here, by E. M. Bartlett.  Performed by Geoff Muldaur, from Secret Handshake, Hightone Records.  And so we come to some of the big questions: Is there something that survives the death of the body?  Is there an afterlife?  Will we somehow be reunited with loved ones who’ve passed on?  Well, don’t expect any definitive answer here—if I knew that I’d at least have my own radio show.  But I do love this song for its simple certainty: yes, yes, and yes.

Agnus Dei, from Faure Requiem Op.48 / Durufle Requiem Op.9, Performed by the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Robert Shaw, Conductor, Telarc.  This is included in memory of the victims of the attacks on 11 September 2001.  I couldn’t then, as I saw the smoke drifting over lower Manhattan,  and still can’t comprehend this degree of evil of which ego is capable.  “…and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Harps and Angels, by Randy Newman.  From Harps & Angels,Nonesuch Records.  A little reminder (I think) that “we should always live in perfect holiness,” since you never know when your time will come, and it may not be a clerical error.  So “when they lay you on the table, better keep your business clean.”  Plato couldn’t have said it better.

Mild und leise wie er lächelt (Isolde’s Liebestod) (Love-Death), from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner.  Performed by Birgit Neilsen, soprano, and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon.  (The last cut on the album.)  Okay, I know what you’re thinking, but just put your prejudices about opera aside for a minute, okay?  (Hey, I could have included the 22 minute-long “Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene” from “Gotterdammerung.”)  This is a song about a woman watching her man’s soul ascend to heaven.  Just empty your mind and listen carefully and let your own spirit soar as well.

Crossing the Bar, by Alfred Lord Tennyson and Rani Arbo.  Performed by Salamander Crossing, from Bottleneck, Signature Sounds.  A little different from the way we English majors learned it, but still beautiful and worth printing.

Sunset and evening star And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar When I put out to sea
Twilight and evening bell, And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell When I embark
But such a tide as moving seems asleep Too full for
      sound and foam
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
      Turns again home
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place The flood      may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face When I have crossed the bar.


Grave of Dr. Richard Ayscough, Trinity Church Cemetery, New York.  Photo by dab.

Angel tombstone on the grave of Dr. Richard Ayscough, Trinity Church Cemetery, New York. Photo by dab.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Verses from the Upanishads: Translated with a Commentary by Hari Prasad Shastri, Shanti Sadan, London, 2002