Considering the Life and Death of Ralph Stanley, A True American Hero!

When Ralph Stanley was just a young boy, his mother asked him if he would rather have a pig or a banjo. Fortunately, for bluegrass music fans, he chose a banjo.

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Dr. Ralph Stanley, as he had often been called after 2002 when he received two honorary doctorate degrees, pioneered the “the high lonesome sound” of bluegrass music in a way that few musicians have been able to for other new styles. The genre that he and his brother Carter perfected was not entirely new, but  an extension of a musical tradition over carried by immigrants from the British Isles to the Appalachian region of Southwest Virginia, where the Stanley Brothers grew up. Their music was also influenced by the Sacred Heart style of acapella music that the Stanley’s heard at the Primitive Appalachian Baptist Church that their family attended. In 2002, Ralph told NPR Fresh Air interviewer, Terry Gross, that their church couldn’t afford to purchase hymnals for their members, so the preacher first sang each line, and then the congregation repeated the same words back. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe’s new bluegrass style became The music of the mountains. Today, we might not remember that they were performing and recording in the days before television reached the remote region they lived in, where Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee are all in close proximity. Stanley mentioned to Gross, that after the late 1950’s, Elvis Presley brought “rock and roll” music to American television and radio audiences, and as a result, the record companies dropped bluegrass music from their labels. Fortunately, the Stanley Brothers kept developing their home-grown style of music and slowly developed new generations of loyal fans. After Carter died in 1970, Ralph decided to keep singing, forming the group, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. After that period, Ralph took on many apprentices, who each became heavily influenced by his banjo techniques and singing style. Most notably among these is Ricky Skaggs. From that period through the present day, almost all bluegrass musicians and singers have been inspired and influenced by the Stanley’s.

Ironically, I saw Ricky perform on Friday night, June 24, 2016, exactly one day after Stanley died. He was one of the headline performers at Bruce Hornsby’s weekend long, “Funhouse Fest” in Williamsburg, Virginia. Skaggs, who now carries the highest profile link to the pioneers of bluegrass music, fittingly opened his first set with an acapella Ralph Stanley song. In addition, he sang several others accompanied by the highly influential multi-musical genre musician, producer, singer and songwriter, Bruce Hornsby. Skaggs, who has now been singing for forty years, and Hornsby, who has been on the musical scene for thirty years, seemed even more inspired in their performances after they paid tribute to Stanley and sang several of his songs. Skaggs’ artistry needs no extra hype to traditional country music fans. However, I heard several people in the audience say that his “Funhouse Festival” performance “was as good or better than they had ever seen him bring to the stage.” Hornsby’s bluegrass piano playing was also surprisingly fresh and delightful, and both musicians brought the sold-out crowd to their feet several times during the evening.

After the 1970’s, it seemed like Stanley might ride out his career playing small concerts and music festivals in rural and mountain areas. However, in the year of 2000, the now legendary film producers, the Coen Brothers, asked him to record several songs on what became their Oscar-winning winning film, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Stanley sang a high-paced version of “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” which became the musical soundtrack of virtually every radio station between 2oo2-2005, even on those that featured popular and “rock and roll” music. He also received a Grammy Award for Best Male Vocal Performer in 2002 for his bone-chilling performance of “Oh Death,” a traditional folk song based on Lloyd Chandler’s, 1929 version of “A Conversation With Death.” Few performers get to perform their own Obituary Song for millions of people fifteen years before their own death, but Stanley pulled it off in a “high lonesome” style. I did not listen much to bluegrass music or to Ralph Stanley before witnessing him perform at the Grammy’s. But, he sure received my attention after he sang, “Oh Death.” You can see and listen him perform both “A Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Oh Death” on YouTube at  and https:// .

The “Grim Reaper”

On June 25, Geoffrey Himes titled his Washington Post Appreciation article, “If Mount Rushmore were in Appalachian, [Stanley’s] face would be in it.” Everyone knows there is no section of Rushmore in the Appalachian region. However, if anyone would be interested in carving one, there is no doubt that Stanley’s face would be one of the first ones on it. He established a new genre of truly American music and mentored the way for countless numbers of musicians to follow in his footsteps. But, what I think is most heroic about Stanley, is that remained True to his style for over sixty years, even when it meant that only a handful of his fans were willing to listen to his music. Fortunately, for Stanley, fame arrived at his doorstep in the latest years of his life. And, as for all people, so did Death. Himes wrote that he thought that Stanley’s “Oh Death” song “made The Grim Reaper sound like an acquaintance of long standing.” In 2002, Stanley sang the song like he was expecting death to come for a visit at any time, but he wasn’t welcoming it! Unfortunately, no amount of pleading with the harbinger of death could give the legendary artist another year, or even another day. Dr. Ralph Stanley died on Thursday, June 23, 2016, at the age 89.  Despite his many achievements, he might be best remembered by his Obituary Song, Oh Death:

O, Death
O, Death
O, Death
Won’t you spare me over ’til another year
Well what is this that I can’t see
With ice cold hands takin’ hold of me
Well I am Death, none can excel
I’ll open the door to Heaven or Hell
Whoa, Death someone would pray
Could you wait to call me another day
The children prayed, the preacher preached
Time and mercy is out of your reach
I’ll fix your feet til you can’t walk
I’ll lock your jaw til you can’t talk
I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see
This very hour, come and go with me
I’m Death I come to take the soul
Leave the body and leave it cold
To draw up the flesh off of the frame
Dirt and worm both have a claim

O, Death
O, Death
Won’t you spare me over ’til another year
My mother came to my bed
Placed a cold towel upon my head
My head is warm my feet are cold
Death is a-movin’ upon my soul
Oh, Death how you’re treatin’ me
You’ve close my eyes so I can’t see
Well you’re hurtin’ my body
You make me cold
You run my life right outta my soul

Oh Death please consider my age
Please don’t take me at this stage
My wealth is all at your command
If you will move your icy hand
The old, the young, the rich or poor
All alike to me you know
No wealth, no land, no silver no gold
Nothing satisfies me but your soul

O, Death
O, Death
Won’t you spare me over til another year
Won’t you spare me over til another year
Won’t you spare me over til another year


Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write Murray by leaving a Comment on this Blog, or by meeting him at the Poe Museum (see below):




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