Death And The Lady


Jon rightly calls this one “A rather less cheerful May song for you. The tune is my own but based very closely on Rakish Paddy.”

I think the guitar adds a feel of a procession or dance to this, which seems appropriate. I’ve read suggestions that this is C16th, without actually seeing a version dated then and have found an example that certainly dates from the end of the C17th or early C18th, but the concept of the conversation with Death as a person, or indeed The Doleful Dance Of Death seems to be much older. It’s a topic that has doubtless worked its way through our entire history in songs and stories, but the Middle Ages and particularly the time of the first great plague, with the seemingly arbitrary way that death swept through Europe marked a period of obsession with mortality. As well as his own tune Jon sings slightly different words to either Shirley Collins or Waterson:Carthy whose versions you’ll find at Mainly Norfolk. I’ll also give you this Mudcat link to start you off on further research should you want to as there are plenty of links off that are worth a look. Finally I’ll give you this link. I don’t normally add links to the latter site as I’ve never worked out how to turn the blasted midi files off, so the volume or mute may be needed as I find it grates. It does have a rather different version of the song with an extended conversation, the outcome of which, however, is naturally the same.



46 Responses to “Death And The Lady”

  1. Jane Ramsden says:

    This rather wonderful song even made it to Vaudeville. Double-click on the photos to enlarge in a slideshow:

  2. judith says:

    Thankyou, Jane .
    Fascinating viewing.
    Great accompaniment, Jon

  3. Jan says:

    Excellent! A fine song, beatifully sung and accompanied.

    If there’s one certainty in this world it’s that at some time we are all going to die, and I think it’s a good thing to sing about it and not pretend it isn’t going to happen.

    That’s my philosophy, anyway.

  4. I think I like this version even better than the one Bellowhead recorded. The guitar accompaniment works perfectly.

    One of my favourite AFSAD posts so far!

  5. John Biggs says:

    What an excellent version of this ancient song, and I agree, the guitar is spot on.
    It looks as if the lady in the slide show is putting her man up as part of the stake in the card game, but The Grim Reaper will get two for the price of one in the end.
    With all the scope for songs set in this time of year, it is clear that May is going to be a classic month in A.F.S.A.D.

  6. the_otter says:

    Suitably eerie and haunting. I love the guitar. I agree with Joanne that it may be even better than Bellowhead’s recording.

  7. SRD says:

    Lovely, and an odd coincidence, last night we saw the Doric Quartet at the Wiltshire Music Centre who played Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (a fine performance). Is there a particular relevance to this time of year, normally a time of new life surely?

  8. sarah says:

    just love this!

  9. Diana says:

    I have loved this one since I first heard it on Burlesque and I think Jon singing it solo and accompaning himself musically is much better.

    My thanks Reynard are two songs back now.

  10. Muzza (N.W.Surrey.UK) says:

    Strange innit…………..when a child(what a memory folks) I was taken by the classical piece ‘Valse tristesse’ and really loved it and whirled around the room many a time to the zing it had………Many years later, I was stunned to find that it was all about a lady being taken by death…aaaaarrrggghh..the point being that it isn’t always a good thing to probe too deeply….enjoy something for what it is to you.
    I did check youtube for an example of Valse T but there is only a Balalaika orchestra strumming it to death and nothing like the wild, strident violins that I remember.
    Also…..ref this song-‘Death & the lady’ I like the ‘Midi’ tune version to which Admin Simon gives the link sounds more Folky/oldyworldy.
    One last point….verse three:-
    His head was bald, his beard was grey,
    His cheeks were like the mortal clay;
    I asked him how he came that way,
    All in the morning early.

    I see that every morning in the mirror and so can only conclude that the answer is:
    ‘Too much bloody morris dancing!’..and losing odd socks…
    Gotta dash….morris dancing ALL day today… the rain! Welcome Summer.

  11. Jane Ramsden says:

    Still lovely second time round, especially the guitar accompaniment, Jon.

    @ Muzza: No matter what the face is like looking back at thee of a morning, Morris dancing has kept ye fit enough to still be going out and doing it all… and the dancing… hahahahaha! You have all your chairs at home, that’s what counts. The socks are neither here nor there… or rather they are… more there than here… but you get my drift… which they do… oh, put a sock in it, Ted! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

  12. Diana says:

    Oh the blessed socks have raised their ugly head yet again. Otherwise Jane thought your comments amusing and apt. Muzza really must be fit if he is doing all the morris dancing cos it is strenuous isn’t it? Well it looks like it anyway. Haven’t tried it myself.

  13. Muzza (N.W.Surrey.UK) says:

    @Jane/Diana…………..Dancing…I blooming well wish!!!!!..Sorry to disappoint…..I am not the slim, fit, stud monkey of your dreams!……. I had to give up the physical side a few years ago and am now a couch potato wot plays the melodeon (only one step DOWN from Boudrhan player) they say….
    THe definition of a Gentleman…”a fellow who knows how to play a melodeon- but Doesn’t!”

  14. Diana says:

    As my dad used to say “Damn, blast, roast and set fire to it” I typed a long message which immediately disappeared, so here I go again (is that a song tho I don’t hear any trumpets blowing). Muzza don’t put yourself down – Jane and I still think of you as you would like to be – so there. A stud monkey if you like and certainly a gentleman. How went your day, I hope you did not have too much rain. I also hope you were not too confused by my comments yesterday – I believe my brain is in gear now and working with my fingers but can’t be sure. It sure wasn’t working when I send a message to Reynard.

  15. Linda says:

    @Diana. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you been to Llandudno for the weekend so I m just catching up. Jolly Bold Robber was the song [ yes I did have to look back through the archives]. Going to see Spiers n Boden at Bury met in couple of weeks.

  16. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Diana: Love that expression, ‘Damn, blast, roast and set fire to it.’ Sounds a lot like my cooking aka ‘assembled’ meals. I have a few choice expressions of my own peculiarity, but cannot possibly put them in writing here! They are way more graphic!

    @ Muzza: Playing an instrument and singing are strenuous enough, let alone dancing. You, at least, have done it. I never have, and would certainly not be up to it now! I’m more yer hefting cats and 25ltr bags of litter around sort of a Ted! I’m up and down flights of stairs all day long, but somehow I’m still not aerobic Ted either!

  17. Diana says:

    @Linda hope the weather in Llandudno was good – spent quite a few hols there myself but everytime I went it always seemd too windy for the cable cars, so I have only been on them once or twice as I recall. Mind you it was usually at half term – late October perhaps so suppose that was to be expected.

    @Jane it is a good expression and it came in handy yesterday. By the time I had finished the message and went to submit it it disappeared so must have hit a wrong key somewhere along the way. The expression is polite enough for company anyway. Doesn’t sound like some of your are Ha Ha. Those bags of litter are blooming heavy I could hardly lift them when I had to – so be careful – we don’t want anything else happening to you – it was bad enough tripping over the cat.

  18. Muzza (N.W.Surrey.UK) says:

    @Diana/Jane………………Ref Diana’s dad vehement oath in times of stress
    The new Yorkshire version:-
    ‘Damn, blast,roast it,set fire to it and pop it in the microwave’
    lacks a bit of ooomph as opposed to
    ‘swing me cat and hoist me litter bag Ha,Ha,Ha,Ha,Ha’

  19. Muzza (N.W.Surrey.UK) says:

    Socks,socks,socks, Vest, vest, vest..(the devil made me say that)
    Sorry Reynard…I had a silly b***er moment….wont happen again.

  20. Diana says:

    Never say never again Muzza it just doesn’t work. Somewhere down the line, you will forget and out will come either socks or vests – ah happy days – we enjoyed all those moments didn’t we? It is funny what you do remember though – my dad and his saying has stuck in my mind all these years.

  21. Jane Ramsden says:

    Microwave? I haven’t got one of them there new-fangled thangs….

  22. Jane Ramsden says:

    Only a little pot stove….

  23. Renyard says:

    see December 28

  24. Diana says:

    Jane I resisted a microwave for yonks but I finally succumbed and it does have its uses especially if in a hurry.

  25. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Reynard: Just bin there! Still going through all the notes and comments for my archive… lol!

  26. Diana says:

    @Jane and Muzza I think my father (if alive) would be very amused to find both of you using his words.

  27. Muzza (N.W.Surrey.UK) says:

    Well girls……I live by microwave….not “ready meals” but freshly cooked veg and potatoes etc lopped into the 10 minute wonder……..
    @Diana……….I thought at first reading that you had lost track of your dear old dad but realised my error on the second reading.

  28. Diana says:

    Gone but never forgotten Muzza. You are good with your veggies – I manage jacket pots from time to time as they do take such a long time when done in the oven. I have not tried veggies though. Glad to see that you take good care of yourself.

  29. Jeremy Main says:

    It wasn’t so much the Black Death (1347-49, depending on where you were) which caused the damage as the other plagues which followed. The Black Death itself caused a huge econmic setback, killing about half the population of Europe, and that in turn led to terrible hardship, with some areas reduced to a stone-age economy. The peasants were unable to support the nobility, indeed turned to craft skills and the protection of guilds, and so Europe was also ravaged by routiers, landless knights and mercenaries robbing to survive. When more waves of plague followed, the morale of the population was shattered and a sense of the diabolical arose from the wreckage – not only is this the time of Heironymous Bosch, but also the creation of the image of the satanic, witches, covens and all (and this is where the older white wiccan creeds we come across gets pasted unfairly with the black brush). Songs like The False Knight almost certainly come from this period.
    But does this song come from here? Norma Waterson explains it as a reduction of an older 17th century broadside (typified in NLS LC Fol 70(52), which is actually of the late 19th century), and this certainly contains references in the levelling of death to the earliest printed text, over a hundred years later (Vierzeiliger oberdeutscher Totentanz, c1460). But by this time the imagery was about to run headlong into the iconic interdiction of the Reformation, and did not resurface until the plagues which accompanied the Wars of Religion. Indeed, the religious references are part and parcel of this, and not of the earlier period when an active knowledge of religion could lead to a quick death. So one may conclude that this is a 19th century reworking of a 17th century original, (possibly itself sourced in the 15th century) which explains its acquisition of bucolic terminology. But a fifteenth century piece this most decidedly is not, far less 14th century, and is most likely mid 19th century, accompanying the neo-Romantic movement inspiring Schubert.

  30. Linda says:

    love the guitar,enjoyed this one .

  31. OldMuzza (N.W Surrey-UK) says:

    Damn,blast,roast and set fire to it….vest, vest, vest, sock sock, sock!….
    oooer…feel a lot better now!

  32. Jane Ramsden says:

    Just behave yersen, Young Muzza! Must be the early hour you rose at got you giddy! Lol.

  33. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Linda: Thanks for the heads-up to the story of Sam Sweeney’s fiddle! I’ve not read it all yet, but here is the web link for those that do:

  34. Jane Ramsden says:

    Seasonal Death and the Maiden poem:

    By Karen Volkman

    In May’s gaud gown and ruby reckoning
    the old saw wind repeats a colder thing.

    Says, you are the bluest body I ever seen.
    Says, dance that skeletal startle the way I might.

    Radius, ulna, a catalogue of flex.
    What do you think you’re grabbing

    with those gray hands? What do you think
    you’re hunting, cat-mouth creeling

    in the mouseless dawn? Pink as meat
    in the butcher’s tender grip, white as

    the opal of a thigh you smut the lie on.
    In May’s red ruse and smattered ravishings

    you one, you two, you three your cruder schemes,
    you blanch black lurk and blood the pallid bone

    and hum scald need where the body says I am
    and the rose sighs Touch me, I am dying

    in the pleatpetal purring of mouthweathered May.

  35. Jane Ramsden says:

    My historical Ziegfeld link above showing how this song made it to vaudeville has fallen over, so here is another with more info as well as the photographs:

  36. Jane Ramsden says:

    Peter Knight’s Gigspanner are putting this song on their next album. See Soundcloud here to listen to what is only the first run-through rehearsal, but also other lovely songs!

  37. Old Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Oh…might as well go the full hog…Damn, blast,roast it,set fire to it

  38. […] If you’re interested you can listen to Jon Boden’s singing the real folk song here. […]

  39. Old Muzza(N.W.Surrey.U) says:

    If I say it yet again….it will become a tradition…(for me anyway)
    Oh…might as well go the full hog…Damn, blast,roast it,set fire to it

  40. Old Muzza(N.W.Surrey.U) says:

    wow……just clicked onto Jane’s post of a few years ago (repeated below) very weird site!

    Jane ‘s post:-My historical Ziegfeld link above showing how this song made it to vaudeville has fallen over, so here is another with more info as well as the photographs:

  41. Old Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Ahhhhh….damn, blast, roast and set fire to it…..and no Diana to chide me for using her dear old dad’s curse in vain!

  42. Linda says:

    Come on Muzza don’t let us down today where’s your laundry check list…..

  43. OldMuzza(NWSurrey uk) says:

    Ha Lindy Lou….you just beat me to it….ALL TOGETHER NOW…..
    and in memory of lil ole Dainer..(and her dad)…Damn, blast, roast it, set fire to it

  44. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Oh come on… has become a tradition for me now….and it’s not as though I’m blocking other folk…..(Hallooooo- anybody out there!) from making comments
    and in memory of lil ole Dainer..(and her dad)…Damn, blast, roast it, set fire to it

  45. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    .Having to chip in a day early as I can’t rely on the lil ole computer behaving on May 7th…..and I can’t let the tradition slip
    and it’s not as though I’m blocking other folk…..(Hallooooo- anybody out there!) from making comments
    and in memory of lil ole Dainer..(and her dad)…Damn, blast, roast it, set fire to it

  46. Linda says:

    Hallooooo Muzza still here……nice to remember Diana……

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