Grim Reaper cuts a swath through America’s songs

In honor of the recent Supreme Court hearings that will ultimately decide the fate of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamocare, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite songs dealing with the topics of death, disease, suicide and despair.

While nine elderly millionaires with government-funded, single payer health plans debate which scraps of an already compromised Act the working dead of America will be left with, here’s a reminder of the power of music to ease our travels down that dark road towards “the way of all flesh.”

“Tecumseh Valley” Townes Van Zandt: The lovely, spare narrative of a young girl, Caroline, who goes off to the big city to earn money to help her struggling, coal miner father. After saving a few dollars working as a bartender, she receives word that the old man has died. With her dream destroyed, she turns to a life of prostitution, which is where the song leaves her, dead beneath a stairwell and clutching a note, a “fare thee well” to the titular valley.

“Flirted with You All My Life,” Vic Chesnutt: A love letter of sorts, addressed to the most faithful companion of Chesnutt’s life—Death.

A quadriplegic since the age of 18 as the result of a car accident, Chesnutt used his barely functional hands to craft songs that rank with the finest in the American songbook. “Flirted,” with its refrain of “Oh, Lord, I am not ready,” is one of his last, and most transcendent, compositions.

Towards the end of his life, Chesnutt became increasingly despondent over his lack of health insurance, which restricted his access to much-needed medical care. Worn down after years of health struggles and commercial indifference, on December 25, 2009, Chesnutt died from an overdose of muscle relaxants that had left him in a coma in an Athens, Georgia hospital.

“T.B. Blues,” Jimmy Rodgers: One of the “Singing Brakeman’s” most well known songs, this description of the affects of a tuberculosis outbreak gives a first-person account of a man whose body “rattles like a train” and whose appetite and ability to sleep have been stolen by the disease.

“Lord but that graveyard is a lonesome place

They put you on your back throw that mud down in your face”

“Death is Not the End,” Bob Dylan: A refrain that could easily be seen as an affirmation of religious faith and perseverance instead comes to sound like a curse as Dylan tolls off a list of the worldly sorrows that, according to the song, will follow us all into eternal unrest.

“When the cities are on fire,

With the burning flesh of men

Just remember that death is not the end

And you search in vain to find

Just one law abiding citizen

Just remember that death is not the end.”

“The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me,” Tom Waits: A tragic-comic look at a man on the verge of a fatal daylight dip.

“I’ll go in up to here

It can’t possibly hurt

All they will find is my beer

And my shirt,” 

Waits crafts this spoken-word, sound poem into a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a man contemplating his peaceful descent to the ocean floor and the things he’ll leave behind. In the end, the protagonist turns away from the watery abyss, though the listener is left with the distinct impression his reprieve is only temporary.

“Them Bones,” Alice In Chains: A sharp, caustic look at physical and artistic mortality by one of the finest bands of the 1990s, “Them Bones” grinds and lurches like a man clawing his way up the face of a sheer, black cliff, only to slide back helplessly time and time again, moving ever closer to some unnamed terminus.

The man on that cliff turned out to be Alice lead singer Layne Staley, who on August 5, 2002 was found dead in his Seattle apartment, an all-too-predictable casualty of a decade filled with heroin abuse and obituaries that read like broken promises.

“Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” Reverend Gary Davis: The good Reverend presents Death as the hardest working man in the mortality business, visiting every bed in every house in the land with never even the thought of a vacation. In Davis’s opinion, the Reaper is not only grim, but a bit rude as well, hurrying his victims along with distressing speed.

“Well he won’t give you time to get ready in this land

 He’ll come to your house and he won’t stay long

 You’ll look in the bed and somebody will be gone.”


While death may be ubiquitous, the will to set aside politics in the interest of this nations citizens certainly is not, as evidenced by our outdated and senseless health care system. Until wiser heads or angry mobs prevail, we can all look forward to more songs of physical atrophy, mental rot and general decay.



One Response to “Grim Reaper cuts a swath through America’s songs”

  1. Lovely selection of songs, thanks. Must check out Revd Gary Davis.
    Layne Staley died in April 2002, their founding bassist Mike Starr followed him just short of a decade later.

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