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More Scary Songs for Halloween

Halloween is here! This year the Library of Congress has decided to make it extra-special, with a pop-up exhibition of our best spooky treasures. The event is called LOC Halloween: Chambers of Mystery, and we hope you’ll visit us for the scary fun–you have just one more day! Also, the Library has just released a new web guide to Halloween resources, which can be found here. The new web page will act as your guide through our rich but terrifying Halloween treasures.

As part of the effort, I’ve been looking through AFC’s collections for “Ghost Stories” and “Halloween Traditions,” two of the exhibit’s themes. In previous posts, I presented some photos of Halloween traditions, a devilish folktale by Bessie Jones, some scary Halloween songs, and a witch tale by Mary Celestia Parler.  And then, of course, this ghost pirate showed up at the exhibit and became our pic of the week!

In this post, you’ll be able to hear three more of our best scary songs. These and several more are included in a listening station at the exhibition, so come visit if you want to hear more. You only have today and tomorrow left, but after that you can see and hear all our treasures in the Folklife research center at the Library of Congress.

Bessie Jones in 1960. Photo by Alan Lomax. AFC 2004/004.

Oh Death (Death in the Morning)

Our first song is an African American version of a common theme: a conversation between death and a sinner.  Entitled “Oh Death” or ” “Death in the Morning,” it shares verses and ideas with other spirituals such as “Travelin’ Shoes,” “Death is Awful,” and “A Conversation With Death.”  It is certainly one of our most terrifying spirituals!

Bessie Jones was a brilliant singer and storyteller from Georgia who led the Sea Island Singers. She sang spirituals and work songs at the 1968 Poor People’s March in Washington, among many other accomplishments. You can read a biography of her at the Association for Cultural Equity.

In the player just below the lyrics, hear Jones sing the song.

Oh Death
Sung by Bessie Jones and Group
AFC 2004/004

Oh Death in the morning, Oh Death in the morning
Oh Death in the morning, spare me over another year

Well Death walked up to the sinner’s gate
Said I believe you have waited now a little too late
Your fever now is one hundred and two
Have a narrow chance that you’ll ever pull through

(Chorus)
Crying, oh Death
Oh, Death in the morning
Oh Death,
Death, spare me over another year

Oh what is this I see?
Cold icy hands all over me
Say I am Death no one can excell
I open the doors of Death and Hell

(Chorus)

No you heard God’s people sing and pray
You would not heed, you just walked away
You would not even bend your knee
Now you got to come and go with me

(Chorus)

Gonna fix your feet where you can’t walk
Fix your tongue so you cannot talk
Close your eyes an’ you cannot see
You got to come now an’ go with me

(Chorus)

Well, Death, consider my age
And do not take me in this stage
Because all of my wealth is at your command
If you just remove your cold icy hand

(Chorus)

Oh, Mother standing by the bed
With an aching heart and a hung down head
The doctor looked around, very sad
Said, the worst old case I ever had

(Chorus)

He said mother, I got feets and I can’t walk
I got a tongue mother and I can’t talk
I got eyes and I can’t see
Nothin’ but Death has got the shackles on me

Wind and Rain

Our second song is a version of the classic ballad “The Two Sisters,” which is number 10 in Francis James Child’s book The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and number 8 in the Roud Folk Song Index. In most versions of this ballad, a girl is murdered by her sister, though in Kilby Snow’s, it is her lover that does the evil deed. After she is dead, a musician makes an instrument out of her bones and hair (naturally); in Kilby Snow’s song, it’s a fiddle. In older versions of the song, the ghostly instrument reveals the identity of the murderer; in this version, it just signals the tragedy by playing a tune called “The Dreadful Wind and Rain.”

Kilby Snow (1905-1980) was famous for his old ballads, sung as here with autoharp accompaniment. He told collector Mike Seeger that he learned this song from his grandfather Thomas Snow (1812-1916), or Tom Big Bear, who was Cherokee. He learned it when Tom was 95 and he was about 8, and then remembered it many years later. He decided to start singing it, because “you just got to sing it or it keeps haunting you.” (Don’t say we didn’t warn you!)  Find the player right under the lyrics.  (Note that these are the lyrics as Kilby Snow wrote them down and gave them to Mike Seeger. They differ a bit from what he sings on this recording, but they tell a more complete version of the tale.)

Wind and Rain
Sung by Kilby Snow
AFC 1995/004

It was early one morning in the month of May
Oh the wind and rain
Two lovers went fishing on a hot summer day
Crying the dreadful wind and rain

He said to the lady, won’t you marry me
Oh the wind and rain
Then my little wife you’ll always be
Crying the dreadful wind and rain

She said, oh no that will never do
Oh the wind and rain
I love you but I can’t marry you
Crying the dreadful wind and rain

Then he knocked her down and he kicked her around
Oh the wind and rain
He hit her in the head with a battering ram
Crying the dreadful wind and rain

Then he threw her in the river to drown
Oh the wind and rain
He watched her as she floated down
Crying the dreadful wind and rain

She floated on down to the mill in time
Oh the wind and rain
Then the miller fished her out with his long fishing line
Crying the dreadful wind and rain

He made fiddle pegs of her long finger bones
Oh the wind and rain
He made fiddle pegs of her long finger bones
Crying the dreadful wind and rain

He made a fiddle bow of her long curly hair
Oh the wind and rain
He made a fiddle bow of her long curly hair
Crying the dreadful wind and rain

Now the only tune that fiddle will play
Oh the wind and rain
Now the only tune that fiddle will play
Is oh, the dreadful wind and rain

Skin and Bones

Anne Warner (left) records Frank Proffitt in 1941. AFC 1950/002

Our final song, “Skin and Bones,” was collected from an anonymous singer in Iowa in 1941, but it’s been scaring kids for generations. It’s found wherever English is spoken, and is given the number 501 in the Roud Folksong Index. Iona and Peter Opie gave a brief history of the song in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, beginning with the earliest version they knew, which was published with the title “The Gay Lady that Went to Church” in Gammer Gurton’s Garland in 1810. The Opies commented about the “Gay Lady”:

Ever since the story was first told, her experience has been bringing terror to the listeners in the nursery.  [The poet] Southey, in tears, used to beg his family not to proceed.  An essayist, in 1863, recalled his ‘suppressed anticipation’ as the story ‘drew near its terribly personal ending’; a correspondent in 1946 said that these verses in Rimbault’s book ‘scared us so much as children, we fastened the leaves together’.  The lady, the title says, was a ‘gay’ lady before the event, and therefore undoubtedly wanting in virtue.  Perhaps the macabre moralist whe wrote the tale had in mind the paintings of bodies corrupting in the grave at one time hung in churches.

The Warners, like the Opies, were a husband-and-wife team who were among America’s greatest song collectors, and we’re proud to have their collections at AFC.  You can download a biography as pat of this pdf finding aid to their collection, and watch this brief video biography from Folk Alliance International on YouTube.

Please enjoy this last scary song…and have a happy Halloween!

Skin and Bones
Sung by an Anonymous Singer
AFC 1950/002

There was an old lady
All skin and bones
Mmm-mmm-mmm

She thought she’d go to church one day
To hear the parson preach and pray
Mmm-mmm-mmm

And when she got unto the stile
She thought she’d rest a little while
Mmm-mmm-mmm

And when she got unto the door
She thought she’d rest a little more
Mmm-mmm-mmm

She looked up, she looked down
She saw a corpse upon the ground
Mmm-mmm-mmm

The woman to the parson said
Will I look so when I am dead?
Mmm-mmm-mmm

The parson to the woman said,
You will look so when you are dead.
Mmm-mmm-mmm

The woman to the parson said:
Aaaaaaaaaaah!

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