On the Importance of Singing about Death

The California Honeydrops don’t usually sing about death. The band plays upbeat blues-ish music featuring happy brass. Their most memorable line is “I liked you better when it was wrong,” and their lyrics are about love, singin’ all day, and pumpkin pie.

When I went to a show of theirs last week, it was therefore interesting to encounter a song about death.

“Cry For Me” is a heavy-on-the-horns New Orleans-blues-informed song about not wanting to be mourned in sadness:

Video by yours truly

As I’ve written before, I’m often struck by the gall people can display to quite literally shake their hips in the face of death. It’s worth marveling at our capacity to look death in its eyes and spread out a picnic blanket or in this case launch into a trumpet solo.

Perhaps my favorite artistic expression of this attitude is Elizabeth Cotten’s song “Freight Train.” With her distinctive acoustic guitar picking style, she sings in her hoarse voice:

When I die Lord bury me deep

Way down on old Chestnut Street

So I can hear old number nine

As she comes rolling by


In our contemporary American society, singing about death so openly and fearlessly jolts one to attention. From our obsession with keeping bugs out of our houses to our telling our children that they can do anything they want, we remove ourselves from nature and generally seem to operate on the assumption that we will live forever.

I just finished reading the Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann’s spectacular book The Prophetic Imagination. In it, he makes the case for a prophetic (as in the biblical book of The Prophets) outlook on life. This outlook is not only rabble-rousing in the way that social justice liberals tend to read The Prophets. Instead, Brueggemann also argues that a true prophetic outlook means countering the dominant ideology of our society.

Brueggemann writes that the dominant consumer capitalist ideology of selfishness and oppression suppresses any conversation about death. He explains that accepting death “would suggest that we are not in charge, that things will not forever stay the manageable way they are, and that things will not finally all work out.” This sense of things not being okay undermines the dominant way of seeing the world, which wants us to act as though that we are essentially immortal and have nothing existential to worry about.

For Brueggemann, coming to terms with death is part of the larger prophetic project of removing our “numbness.” He argues that facing our own death can open us up to caring about our neighbor’s situation — which can lead to a radical, transformative outlook.

To be clear, Brueggemann doesn’t have hip shaking in mind when he discusses how we should come to terms with death. He describes prophetic “pathos” and the need for mourning. But it still seems like there is a connection to be made between prophetic imagination and the California Honeydrops. When they sang “Cry For Me” last week, it felt like they pierced through the stale ideology that surrounds us. Something radical happens when you riff on your trumpet after singing about your death.

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