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In search of our mortality - Age, growing old, and dying.


I could almost just link you to last Octobers tear-jerkers issue, but all songs about aging and death aren't sad, and all sad songs aren't about getting old and dying, so here goes. This month's issue was inspired by some health issues I had last winter. Things are going well now, but as a result I spent at least my fair share of time involved in introspection. Dr. Kubler-Ross observed that there are 5 pretty standard emotional stages to the process of death and dying. Growing old is part of the death/dying process so these stages probably apply to the whole process.

  1. The first stage is denial
  2. The second is anger or resentment
  3. The third is bargaining
  4. The fourth stage is depression
  5. The fifth and final stage is acceptance

I am not sure if I went through stages one and two properly. Stage three lasted about fifteen seconds I jumped to stage five in about 5 minutes and didn't have time to hit stage four, depression until after every thing was ok.

One of the positive things to come out of the incident is that I started thinking about how songs have dealt with the issue of getting old and dying over the ages.

While looking for songs I have tried to stay away from certain subject matter or sources. Songs about war for example. Most of them are artificial constructs written to take advantage of political events of the time, and not too many war songs about getting old on the front-line waiting for a letter from Mary. We have devoted several issues to the songs of WWI and you can review them find them in our 2000 and 2001 back issues. Likewise I didn't look into songs from the various religious institutions as they tend too often have an agenda, or are divorced from the actual physical experience of aging. Black American Spirituals tend to be too abstract and aren't often available in sheet music form. The Blues are about suffering, but not too much on just plain getting old, and almost nothing on sheet music of the era, at least not in our collections.

Bring Back Those Wonderful Days


Music by: Nat Vincent
Lyrics by: Darl MacBoyle
Cover artist: De Takacs

This is the song that started it all. No not popular music, but Parlor Songs. Those of you who have been with us all these years may know that this site was inspired by Rick's early hobby site, The Forward Collection, based on a collection of music given to him by his parents. Back in 1996 the very first piece of music that Rick scanned and created a midi file for was "Bring Back Those Wonderful Days". And that is what we have been doing ever since.

As we get older we long for the things that gave us comfort when we where young. In 1919 even the young were longing for simpler times. After many years of horror and hardship, World War I was finally winding down, Prohibition was winding up, the Roaring Twenties are about to start and the Great Depression is just around the corner, women still can't vote and over 4,000,000 American Workers go on strike, walk out, or are locked out of their jobs.

Longing for days gone by is a theme that permeates the history of song to this day. Who doesn't feel the pain and angst of these words by Mary Hopkin?

Just tonight I stood before the tavern
Nothing seemed the way it used to be
In the glass I saw a strange reflection
Was that lonely woman really me
Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la...

In its time "Bring Back Those Wonderful Days" and the many many songs in a similar vein were probably just as powerful.

You've heard of the lamp of Al-lad-din
What won-der-ful things it could do
If I had it to-day I'd rub it and say
Here's all that I want of you,
Oh won't you

Bring back those hap-py days of child-hood,
won't you Bring back the lane down in the wild-wood
that would lead us to the dear old swim-ing pool
Ev-'ry time that we played hook-y on the way to school, oh,

Hear the song that started it all.(scorch format)

listen to MIDI version



Death and the Lady

Early 1700's

Music by: unknown
Lyrics by: unknown
Cover artist: unknown


Let's go back quite a ways and look at what is the genesis for much of our popular music, the English folk song. It should come as no surprise that in a time before modern medicine and social reforms, when death came often, easy, and early that it would be the subject of many songs.

This song "Death and the Lady" taken from a Dover reprint of Cecil Sharps 1916 collection entitled "One Hundred English Folks Songs" probably matured in the early 1700's although the theme is as old as storytelling itself. A young maiden in her prime meets death on the road tries with out success to bargain for her life, and dies six months later.

One of the problems with edited collections is the question of what was left on the cutting room floor. Surely after evolving for nearly 300 years there are more verses. As it is Dr. Kubler-Ross could just about have used this song to illustrate her research into the Five Stages of Grief.

Denial, or in this case discovery as she initially fails to recognize or acknowledge death as he stands before her.

Anger or resentment. The young lady belittles death, questions his right to be there.

Bargaining, way big on bargaining with offers of riches, trying to arrange what Dr. Kubler-Ross describes as a period of temporary truce.

Depression and finally Acceptance as she composes her epitaph.

This song has it all, and it neatly ties things up coming full circle. When she meets death, his clothing is made of cold earthen clay and the song ends "Just in her bloom she was snatched away, Her clothing made of cold earthen clay.

Enjoy this beautiful old ballad (SCORCH format)

listen to MIDI version


The Robber

Date unknown

Music by: unknown
Lyrics by: unknown
Cover artist: unknown

Also from the wonderful Cecil Sharp collection is a song called "The Robber". In my opinion this song is the father of all Cowboy Songs. Compare this brief bit of the story line and lyrics from one of the great modern country western death ballads. "The Streets of Loredo". In coming months we will revisit these songs as I dig deeper into the genesis of Country Western and the Blues, with a twist you won't expect.

"The Cowboys Lament" also known as "The Streets of Laredo"
Let six jolly cowboys come carry my coffin;
Let six pretty maidens come bear up my pall,
Put branches of roses all over my coffin;
Put roses to deaden the clods as they fall.
"The Dying Cowboy" An earlier version of "The Cowboys Lament"
Let sixteen gamblers come handle my coffin;
Let sixteen young cowboys come sing me a song,
Take me to the green valley, there lay the sod o'er me,
For I'm a poor cow-by and I know I've done wrong.
"The Robber" early English folk song.
May six pret-ty maid-ens bear up my pall,
And let them have white gloves and rib-bons all;
That they may say when they speak the truth;
There goes a wild youth,
There goes a wild and a wick-ed youth.

While this song isn't about growing old, it is about death, and defiance, and denial. No regrets voiced here, no lessons to be learned unless the singer of the song adds a little narration at the end. It's modern counterpart, "The Streets of Laredo takes a different voice. It becomes a cautionary tale told by a now old and wiser witness to the events cautioning the next generation about the pitfalls of reckless behavior, but still there is that wistfulness in the voice. Is there some regret there, the narrator made the safe choices, the good choices, but where they the right choices?

Denial, anger, and resentment are often cloaked in the clothes of celebration and defiance. The modern song that meets this criteria is "My way" by Revaux/Francois/Anka and sung most prominently by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., covered by every lounge singer on earth, and played at just about every funeral I have attended as an adult.


Listen to this early folk song (scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version




When You and I Were Young Maggie


Music by: J.A. Butterfield
Lyrics by: Georg W. Johnson
Cover artist: Baker & Frizzell?

The sheet I have is from 1865, 137 years old and the melody is still familiar. I spent 5 hours retouching the image, you can see it in the header above, but I think the original deserves a place on this page.

No denial, anger or resentment here, no bargaining. Maybe a bit of depression tempered by acceptance. This is the end of the story told by the Beatles a hundred years later with "When I'm 64".

When I get older losing my hair,
Many years from now.
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine.
If I'd been out till quarter to three
would you lock the door,
Will you still need me,
will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four.

"When You and I Were Young Maggie" is a gentile song about an older couple who have lived a good life together and are now looking forward to the final verse.

And now we are a-ged and gray,
Mag-gie, And the tri-als of life near-ly done,
Let us sing of the days that are gone, Mag-gie,
When you and I were young.

Hear this old wonderful song (scorch)

Listen to MIDI version




Silver Threads among the Gold

1873 our copy 1901

Music by: H.P. Danks
Lyrics by: Eben E. Rexford
Cover artist: Jenkins

Like "Maggie" above, this song is about two people growing old together, but it is more impersonal, perhaps they are still in love, perhaps just going through the motions, I feel a bit of denial and fear. This is one of those songs that depending on the singer could have many meanings and moods, or it could be totally banal.

I don't know how many copies this song sold, but at least here in the Pacific Northwest it is hard to turn over a stack of old sheet music without at least one copy of Silver Threads falling out. Nice song but it just doesn't seem to go deep into my soul the way some of them do.

Darling, I am growing, growing old,
Silver threads a-mong the gold,
Shine upon my brow today;
Life is fading fast away.

When your hair is silver white,
And your cheeks no longer bright
With the roses of the May,
I will kiss your lips, and say:

Oh! my darling, mine alone, alone,
You have never older grown.
Yes! my darling, mine alone,
You have never older grown.


Enjoy this popular song (scorch)

Listen to MIDI version



See our resources page for a complete bibliography of all resources used to research this and other articles in our series.


WAIT! There are more great songs about aging to see and hear. The second part of this issue features many more great songs.

Go to part B.

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