The Fear of Death - The Most Sinister of Stalkers ....

“While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die” - Da Vinci.


Fear is a funny thing; omni-present, politically useful, both debilitating and exhilarating, it is, on the one hand, part of the shared ideology that binds groups together and on the other hand the divisive corrosion that can separate people to the point of blood and warfare.  More people have killed each other in this life, on the basis of what they believe would happen in the next life than for any other reason, and with such beliefs, what emerges is a twin headed hydra of hope and fear.
    Nothing shows how conjoined hope and fear are more so than heaven and hell, it seems inconceivable that there should be one without the other.  One really can wonder at religious people in the modern world and whether they really believe in eternal damnation, given that most seem utterly unconcerned about the prospect that most of the world will face precisely that IF their beliefs are right.  How do they remain so placid, so calm, so serene in the face of such a terrifying proposition?  In the emotional casino of life, those who want the hope of seeing their loved ones again must also accept the horror of eternal suffering for others.
    What is strange about fear is that music and song seem so intriguingly absent of it.  Why this should be is anyone's guess, but very little song, music or poetry communicate fear.  "Why is this strange?", someone might want to ask, "It's perfectly obvious that people don't want to use graceful artifice to communicate anything so unpleasant as fear."  Well, if this is so then why are other institutions so dependent on promoting and propagating fear?
Politicians must necessarily keep alive fear of outsiders and vulnerable groups to keep their own careers and aspirations intact, and religion (which is really a branch of politics) has always needed to invent ghouls and devils to promote mass terror and individual fear and dread (and to deceive people with hope).  It is also worth noticing that fear, distilled into carefully controlled and manageable quantities can also be a conduit for pleasure - amusement parks and horror films feed us this managed fear, which, through neurological changes (such as adrenalin secretion) give us an elevated and enhanced sense of being.  Many a school boy, has developed his career in naughtiness and mischief, partly on the basis of pleasure in fear, stealing apples from his neighbour's garden and then running away or knocking on someone's door and running away are but two examples of actions performed, without being taught by adults, for the sole purpose of experiencing fear.  If fear, thoughtfully distilled, can be a source of pleasure, then why does visual art occasionally do this? (Edvuard Munch's Scream, is a depiction of fear, albeit without frightening the observer).  Music and song seem unequipped to impart fear; hope is utterly and comfortably within  the remit of music and song, but not its twin, fear.

What children don't harbour or carry, is a fear of death.  This emerges later, but neither do their later incarnations -  teenagers and 20 year olds.  In fact, young adults, sexualised, sensuous and pleasure-centered, although blessed with a naive and fragile sense of immortality, are divided by two very important differences in fear: women and men have different biological clocks, women, comparatively early, develop a fear of not securing a partner and not having children earlier than do men.  Men, do not develop these fears until a few years later, and so instead linger for a few years in a alternative state of fear: that of losing one freedom too quickly.  Why else do so few boys and girls of the same age succeed in relationships?  Men are usually older than their female partners, and these age differences show when the two finally develop the same fears.  Fears both bind and divide, they divide lovers of a similar age, and bring together those of slightly different ages.

    What the youthful and amorous don't share with those much older is a fear of death
.  The young know all to well that this fear exists - they are told of it by authors, philosophers of the modern world as well as those of the ancient, and of course fear is incessantly communicated to the young by the old.  Everyday of their young and unfree lives in fact.  The section in the site titled Mothers, shows songs in which mothers smother their little boys with fear and protection.  But his page, is about songs that deal with the fear of death and learning to live with it, or  to somehow defeat this fear by thinking in a certain ways  or using certain words of wisdom.   And here we really see what song excels at, however bad it is at communicating fear, it is exceptionally gifted at removing fear and promoting valour. As any army knows, an array of powerful percussion and a battalion of horns and trumpets can send men's spirits soaring upwards.  Even a humble guitar can do wonders to lift an insecure teenager's confidence from out of the dole drums and into the firmament.  It should hardly then be surprising that song is used to lift us up and away from thoughts about death and mortality, and enter into our lives as instruments  teaching us how to live with death - a function traditionally reserved by the unholy spectre of religion.

                "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die", Johnny Cash Folsom Prison Blues.

Songs about murder seem to be chiefly an American pass time. When the British join in (Eric Clapton for instance) they usually do so to enter into an American cliche that appeals very much to the American folk imagination, to which guns, lawlessness and transgressions are near romances.  It's amazing how many people really think Johnny Cash had served time in prison, when the truth of the matter is that his experience of prison was restricted to singing to the inmates of Folsam and San Quentin, a myth Cash never seemed to go to great lengths to bury, in fact many Cash albums featured images of guns and crosses, appealing to themes of male transgression and redemption.  Bruce Springsteen also entered into this folk trope in his album Nebraska, which is about real life serial killer Charles Starkweather and his fourteen age old girlfriend, both of whom are on the run.  If this sounds almost like Natural Born Killers, that film was itself another cultural attempt to enter into this romance of the ultimate transgression committed by the ultimate rebel.  Very American, very Bonnie, very Clyde.  Springsteen's later album Devils and Dust even has a song on it called Reno, which is a reference to Cash's line (quoted above) which has also risen to folk memory.

Revenge songs also feature in lists of murder songs, usually men defending a woman's honour (although Kate Bush' The Wedding List reverses this ...) and alongside this there's also a sub-category of black humour songs.  The latter work well, because what is telling about these murder songs, is their lack of transgression in using music to communicate hate, anger and violence, for instance most of them, if not all of them, only express a redemptive emotion coupled with a tiny slice of pride.  Music is simply not good a communicating the negative - if it is, then maybe it's too good at it, and the absence of music communicating hate and violence, is a vacuum  protecting us from something too ugly and disturbing to behold. None of the songs listed overtly promote violence, but they do glory in it to some extent, they do romanticise it and express a fake image of musicians being more transgressive than they really are.  Man Down by Rihanna, for instance, amounts to a romanticised confession of a dream crime, as did Hey Joe more famously before it.  It's really not clear what is more psychologically attractive - the fantasy crime or the pseudo redemption.  Very strange indeed.


        In brief, there seem to be at least four categories of songs about murder:

a. The libertarian romance of transcending law and social norms.  These songs have many folk manifestations from culture to culture, although the American tradition there is usually a curious mixture of both pride in the transgression and at the same time a self-pitying desire for redemption;

b. the revenge narrative.  This frequently consists of retaliation against someone who has insulted the honour of a female spouse or partner or retaliation against the partner for treachery.  This genre is also evolving to include dark female fantasies of revenge against men too;

c. black humour in which death is treated as an object of comedy.  An unpopular person can be used in the song (and imagined dying) or an utterly fictional character can be evoked to take some of the gravitas out of death;

d. and finally songs which use murder and killing as metaphors - Bang Bang by Nancy Sinatra for instance which was used so poignantly on Kill Bill, and Morrissey's You Have Killed Me.  It stands to reason that death and murder be as useful as metaphorical and literary devices as life, rebirth and resurrection.  These songs, however interesting, are not included on this page, because they are not directly dealing with a taboo, viz. that of really killing someone.


Please feel free to offer suggestions and feedback to Pele Sahota


and my business pages:

My Youtube film:
Subpages (22): View All