To all those who have recently lost a loved one.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.
Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
– Stephen Spender
Thank you to everyone for your heartfelt choices this week. I’ve eventually settled on these 13 very different ways of marking the death of a loved one. All of them resonated with me in a way that’s hard to define, but possibly has something to do with a mingling of emotions, a blurring of sorrow and love, regret and hope, fear and defiance. In their very different ways, I hope they express something of the fragile beauty and mystery of a human life.
In Gabriel Fauré’s own words, his Requiem in D Minor is “dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest”. Our opening music is the penultimate movement, Libera me. A baritone soloist, praying to his God to be freed from death, is joined by a wave of celestial voices, rising above the sombre but tender orchestral setting. The music fluctuates between mourning, fear and hope, anticipating the glorious ‘In Paradisum’ that completes this extraordinary work.
Here we go, comin’ at ya. In what may at first seem an odd lyrical choice, we hear Todd Rundgren’s narrator seek forgiveness for all the times he’s lied, begged and cheated, steadfast in the certainty that his death will bring no afterlife. But the bleakness of this message stands in stark opposition to the wondrous beauty and passion of the gospel-like music, which I imagine swirling up through the midnight air and joining with the dust in the wind.
I’d like you now to find all manner of stringed instruments. Assemble massed ranks of guitarists, of strummers and thrummers of banjos, ukuleles and mandolins! And, with Joe Brown sing along in chorus for those who’ve left this world before us. I’ll see you in my dreams.
And when I die, a bold, defiant Laura Nyro entreats us, remember there’s still a world to carry on. So blow those horns and start pounding out a rhythm on that honky tonk piano. Dance, wildly please, with all your friends. Live on for those around you. And keep in mind there’ll be another child born by and by.
If, when I die, the rumour-mongers say I had a girl in Portland and one in Denver, it would be a great surprise to my family but, I can assure them, a most curious lie (I’ve been to neither city). I won’t mind, though, if at my funeral you play this wry song, here sung with irresistible pathos by Johnny Cash. I’ve walked a fair few A-roads and B-roads. Love’s been good to me, and I hope to you.
When I die, you better second line, warns Kermit Ruffins. If you’re not sure what this involves, go down to the French Quarter of New Orleans for a jazz funeral. After the more sombre part of the proceedings, the hearse will leave the procession and the band will start to play more raucous music. At this point, you can don your most brightly coloured clothes, fall in line behind the band and parade up and down the street, shaking your tail feathers, eating week-long barbecues and wishing the departed off to that big jam session beyond the sky.
To Zimbabwe now, and the joyous twisting rhythms and zinging guitars of The Bhundu Boys. In Manhenga, this all too short-lived band holler, and huff and puff, and sing beguiling lines of call and response, and ask to be given wings to take them home to where their spirits are.
At times of loss, we can’t help but reflect on our own time left in the world. Greg Allman wrote the song Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More following the death of his brother, Duane. Rolling along on a perfect rhythm and poignant slide guitar, The Allman Brothers Band promise never to let another precious day skip by, whilst they raise their children in the best way they can.
The loss of a close friend or family member – or the thought of one’s own impending death – can become a moment to confront God and angrily demand explanations. Here, Leonard Cohen appears to imagine, with an ambiguous blend of dour self-deprecation and bitter irony, more passive conversations with God. Maybe he’s going home without his burden, to where it’s better than before. Or maybe he’s only repeating what God’s told him to say. But read what you like into the words, just revel in the graceful splendour of the music.
Why Rosanne Cash and Tell Heaven? I’m not sure. Maybe that it’s a sparse, beautiful song that both complements and contrasts with the Cohen. A simple plea to express ourselves in prayer when we’re in our darkest moments, not so much in the hope of heavenly intervention, but in the confidence of a human good that will come our way.
We come now to Im Abendrot (‘At Sunset’) the most glorious of Richard Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs’. My vinyl copy of the Elizabeth Schwarzkopf recording is worn away to a shred. We’ll go here with reader attwilightlarks (never a more apposite name for a nominator!) who suggested the Jessye Norman version. As evening descends, two larks ascend into the haze. An ageing couple, who have wandered hand in hand through life, contemplate the serenity of their surroundings and the twilight of their lives. Spine-tingling.
I’m not sure if my late Dad believed in a God or in a more general sense of enduring good. I suspect more the latter – the profound belief that acts of goodness have, in some unknowable way, a lasting value that is undiminished by the death of the benefactor. This thought was in my mind when last year my family and I went to pay our last respects to a dear old friend. After funeral service and wake, some of us gathered on a favourite beach and ran down together into the surfy waves. In our penultimate selection, Van Morrison sings of smelling the sea, feeling the sky, hearing the foghorn blow, and letting your soul fly Into the Mystic.
I wanted to end with a song where everyone can join in, probably after a few beers or whiskeys at the wake. A simple song that allows us to bellow together from the heart, and give thanks for good companions, for treasured memories, for songs and bars and joy and laughter. Thank you, therefore, to reader treefrogdemon for suggesting Roy Bailey and Rolling Home. I think this should do the trick. All together now ...
The Abide With Us A-list Playlist:
Gabriel Fauré – Libera Me (from Requiem in D Minor)
Todd Rundgren – Dust In The Wind
Joe Brown – I’ll See You In My Dreams
Laura Nyro – And When I Die
Johnny Cash – Love’s Been Good To Me
Kermit Ruffins – When I Die, You Better Second Line
The Bhundu Boys – Manhenga
The Allman Brothers Band – Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More
Leonard Cohen – Going Home
Rosanne Cash – Tell Heaven
Richard Strauss – Im Abendrot (from Four Last Songs)
Van Morrison – Into The Mystic
Roy Bailey – Rolling Home
The Benedictus Qui Venit B-list Playlist:
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge – Abide With Me
This Mortal Coil – Song To The Siren
Nina Simone – Ne Me Quitte Pas
The Dears – No Cities Left
Willie Nelson – He Was A Friend of Mine
Band of Horses – The Funeral
Grateful Dead – Brokedown Palace
Macy Gray – The Letter
Yes – Wonderous Stories
The Rankin Family – Borders And Time
Carlos Gardel – Adiós Muchachos
Robert Wyatt – At Last I Am Free
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Free Bird
Guru’s Wildcard Pick:
Songs: Ohia – Farewell Transmission
The whole place is dark
Every light on this side of the town
Suddenly it all went down
Now we'll all be brothers of
The fossil fire of the sun
Now we will all be sisters of
The fossil blood of the moon
We’ll be gone but not forever.
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: To reflect on life's passing: songs and music to play at funerals. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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