Oh Death – Dock Boggs
There is a wooly bear lying flattened in the dirt of the driveway. The poor little caterpillar is completely pancaked by some errant driver, some bastard who don’t know that it’s wicked bad luck to kill one of these little guys. Besides, sixty an hour versus a leisurely crawl don’t seem quite… fair. You wouldn’t run down a harmless little old lady in the road, sending her walker flying over onto the grass, twisted out of shape forever. Caterpillar’s got just as much a right to live.
But mayhaps it was time. You reckon there’s a little fuzzy reaper in a little fuzzy robe with a tiny toothpick scythe, coming knocking in the wet dark of night? Somebody ought to be around, carrying that soul on up to Heaven heedless of size. Likely the same fella who must’ve come for that raccoon I saw broken and bleeding in the ditch beside the highway; strolling down the asphalt easy as you please, saying something in that ice-sharp whisper, something like “Well howdy there, Mr. Raccoon! Why don’t you step right up and follow me?”
They say Oh Death comes from the dim distance of the 1920s. Some say earlier. They say it was a preacher that wrote it up, sung it on his preaching circuit in the hollers of Appalachia, but the ideas came from far before him. Everybody’s been talking about some poor soul meeting Death, for centuries untold. The Mesopotamians thought they’d meet Him in Samarra. Lloyd Chandler thought He’d come right up to you, and fix your feet so you can’t walk. Dock Boggs plays the song minor-key, but not overly so. Modern-day covers attempt to make it epic, terrifying, moody… but that’s not what it’s like.
I know a man who died of cancer in a college hospital. The fella with the raccoon and the wooly bear already in his bag was standing by that bedside for a damned long time. “Take your time, friend. I’m ready when you are.” I wonder if he was wearing a lab coat. A different disguise for every different patient, always a comforting sight, keep them calm, relaxed – it’s easier that way. This won’t hurt a bit… a lie. It’ll hurt quite a bit before it’s over. Best thing you can do is bite the bullet and try to get out a few meaningful words for those dear dear folks you’re leaving.
It’s just Dock and his banjo (banjos again, I just can’t control myself). Rattling coal miner’s voice, getting even more rattling with age. He was the cat’s pajamas in the ‘30s, dropped off the map for decades, came back in the ‘60s to get a few songs in at the behest of Alan Lomax before the toll of a coal miner’s life came due. Seminal hill musician, one of the all-time greats, up there with Nimrod Workman, Clarence Ashley, Roscoe Holcomb… all of these scraggly blue-collar guys who recorded folk tunes in between doing some of the hardest work a person can do. Death isn’t a stranger in the hill country, even now: pills, collapsing mines, sickness, bad weather, and the plain ol violence of men.
Oh Death isn’t a song lilted to a stranger. He’s known in Dock’s world. You can see Him on every street corner, every train track, every copse of pines. We’ve hidden Death from ourselves today. We hide Him with euphemism, we sequester Him in sanitized wards, dress Him up in a fancy three-grand casket. Get Him out of sight as soon as possible. People just ‘pass away.’ They used to die.