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Ten Songs About Death and the Eternal Journey

Music is a diverse form of expression that takes in many styles. It's a popular field that can only be briefly sampled in a short article.

By modern standards, medieval people had an unusual view of heaven and earth

By modern standards, medieval people had an unusual view of heaven and earth

On Death and Dying

Death is definitely a strange subject. Everybody has to face it eventually, but nobody knows quite how this inevitable transition will unfold. This attitude not only applies to the everyday man and woman but also to those in our society who function as storytellers. As it is a subject that has been covered by many, here are ten songs about death. Still, in this collection, many different approaches are included, varying from the humorous to the profound.

"As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well used brings happy death."

— Leonardo Da Vinci

1. "In Hell I'll Be in Good Company" by the Dead South

Mark Twain had a great saying about heaven and hell. It goes like this: "Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company." This hit by the Dead South is all about the company one might find in hell . . . but, unlike Twain's quote, this song is all about bad company, as opposed to the other kind.

2. "Powderfinger" by Neil Young

Supposedly, Neil Young wrote this song about a few independent prairie farmers in Canada making a gallant but deadly stand against a stronger force. "Powderfinger" has been covered many times, but nobody does it as well as the Cowboy Junkies.

3. "St. James Infirmary" by Irving Mills

"St. James Infirmary" is one of those timeless songs that has become engraved upon our musical consciousness. Sometimes called the "Gambler's Blues," the present-day version was made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928 and has been recorded by many fine musicians. Following is Cab Calloway's interpretation of the song from the early forties. His dramatic presentation of this sad story is an American classic.

4. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" by Bob Dylan

Back in 1973, Bob Dylan wrote this song for the soundtrack of a 1973 movie, entitled Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Over the years, "Knocking on Heaven's Door" has outlived and gathered more acclaim than the Peckinpah Western. Since the movie's release, a host of major musical groups have covered the song, including Guns and Roses, Eric Clapton, Warren Zevon, and the Grateful Dead.

5. "Please Don't Bury Me" by John Prine

Nobody parodies the act of dying better than John Prine in his 1973 release, "Please Don't Bury Me (In That Cold, Cold Ground)." Though this song has been around for over 40 years, it is well worth viewing Prine's performance of "Cut Me Up and Pass Me Around" as he enters his seventies. All in all, the video is a subtle reminder that we all change in appearance (and temperament) as we grow older.

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John Prine

John Prine

6. "Jack You Dead" by Louis Jordan

Also on the humorous side is this Louis Jordan description of death. In this lesser-known tune that predates WWII, Jordan begins by discussing someone who has lost his zest for life as not being really alive. From this point, the Arkansas native skillfully navigates the listener to a wake, all the while making light of the morbid situation.

7. "The Weeping Song" by Nick Cave

"The Weeping Song" was written by Nick Cave of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in 1990. The song is a fascinating back and forth between two singers, Nick Cave and Blixa Bargeld, about the nature of weeping for the deceased.

8. "Death Is Not the End" by Bob Dylan

As a tribute to Bob Dylan's songwriting skill, "Death Is Not the End" is included here. The song, which Dylan wrote back in 1988, is performed by Kylie Minogue and friends, as it expresses the belief held by many different cultures that death is the beginning of something special and not the end.

9. "Journey to the Spirit World" by Buddy Red Bow

"Journey to the Spirit World" is a rousing C&W-styled number that delves into the Sioux approach to dying.

10. "The Eternal Journey" by Wimme Saari

Along similar lines is a song by noted Sami singer, Wimme Saari, simply titled "The Eternal Journey." Unless you understand the Sami language, you will have to use the voice, visuals, and music to interpret the song.

© 2019 Harry Nielsen

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