To give you chills on a summer’s day: Ralph Stanley singing ‘O Death’

My old friend Richard Crowson, a bluegrass musician who is a master at picking anything with strings on it — would likely disown me for admitting this, but I pretty much knew nothing about Ralph Stanley before he died this week.

To give you who are similarly ignorant a little schooling, I share this:

He was a short, gaunt man in a white cowboy hat and gray suit, his features seemingly chipped from granite with a stony gaze to match. When he sang “O Death” at Wolf Trap in 2006 as part of the Great High Mountain Tour, Stanley’s scratchy high tenor made the Grim Reaper sound like an acquaintance of long standing. This traditional lament had revived his career when he sang it in the Coen brothers’ 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” but Stanley’s ghostly vocal made clear that the song was older than that movie, older than the whole history of talking movies.

Even in the 21st century, there was an echo in his voice of 19th-century mining and lumbering (his father worked in an old-fashioned sawmill) and of the 17th-century songs that immigrants from the British Isles brought to the Appalachian Mountains. It was in the southwest corner of Virginia, in Dickerson County under the shadow of Clinch Mountain, that Ralph Stanley was born on Feb. 25, 1927. Together with his brother Carter, two years older, Ralph learned the eerie harmonies of a cappella Sacred Harp singing in church and the spry rhythms of old-time string-band music at dances.

“Three groups really shaped bluegrass music,” Ricky Skaggs told me in 1998. “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs. Everyone who came after them was just following in their footsteps. . . . Ralph’s still out there 150 dates a year; he’s the last of the giants still in action.”…

But he is in action no more. And this video sounded to me like a voice from Beyond when I listened to it over my coffee this morning.

What it does is profound. So I thought I’d share…


6 thoughts on “To give you chills on a summer’s day: Ralph Stanley singing ‘O Death’

  1. David Carlton

    You’ve just now discovered Ralph? My first encounter was when I was still still living in Columbia in the late 1970s, listening to an early-morning bluegrass show on public radio, and they put on the unearthly a cappella gospel song “Bright Morning Stars,” sung with two young guys in his band at the time named Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs. Listen:

    . I knew from then on that I couldn’t live without this music in my life. You should also see D. A. Pennebaker’s great concert documentary “Down From the Mountain,” shot at the Ryman back in 2000 with many of the musicians involved in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” Ralph came on to do “O Death” near the end of the show; I was in the audience, and hearing him declaim sitting in a pew in a darkened Ryman before an audience that figured it had heard it all but never *that.* Ralph was a wonderful gift; fortunately he left us one hell of an archive.

    1. David Carlton

      Just realized that the YouTube clip you’ve attached is from Down on the Mountain; there’s a wonderful shot of the back of the Mother Church toward the end. Gillian Welch’s partner David Rawlings provides the pitch.

  2. Tex

    I first saw Ralph Stanley on the Statler Brothers Show in the late 1970’s and he sang Room at the Top of the Stairs. This song is one I only heard once and stuck in my head when I heard his name. Before YouTube this song seemed like it was impossible to find. About 12 years ago I went to see him at the Bill’s Pickin’ Parlor in West Columbia and he opened with this song. It surprised me because I figured it was one of those songs that he quit performing.

  3. DougT

    CBS Sunday Morning (1 of the very few programs I try not to miss) played a Ralph Stanley song while noting the 4-5 prominent deaths this past week.

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