The “Three B’s” of my personal musical taste are Bach, Brahms, and Bluegrass (Beethoven is a close fourth), so I was saddened to hear that Ralph Stanley, one of the pioneers of bluegrass, died this week. I had the privilege of hearing Stanley in person when I lived in Logan, West Virginia. Though he grew up two hours away from Logan, the stories were the same: small Appalachian town with an unpredictable, fluctuating economy based almost entirely on coal mining. The poor working and living conditions, destruction of the land, power struggle between company and union, and frequent fatalities in the mines formed the hardscrabble context in which bluegrass was born. “High lonesome,” as bluegrass is called, tells the stories of the struggle.
According to Stanley, “That lonesome sound, you can’t learn that. That has got to be born and bred in you.” This is the great attraction of bluegrass–its unflinching authenticity. In form and content, it tells the truth. No effect pedals or auto-tuning, only strings and harmony singing out the realities of love and loss, survival, hope, joy, and death. One of Ralph Stanley’s most well-known recordings is his a cappella rendition of the Appalachian dirge, “O Death” on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. Death, personified, makes these threats:
“Well I am death, none can excel
I’ll open the door to heaven or hell…
I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk
I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk
I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see
This very hour, come and go with me”
There is nothing gratuitous about these words. They simply tell the truth and give voice to what we would rather hide.
Ralph Stanley was not the only man we lost this week. On the same day, June 23rd, death also came for Bob Rehm, who has been part of Whitton Avenue Bible Church longer than almost anyone else. Often when we lose an elderly brother or sister in Christ, we can jump so immediately to the hope of the resurrection that we do not allow ourselves to feel the wrongness of death. The fact that death is “the way it is” does not mean it is the way it should be. Bob Rehm was in frail health and now he is whole in God’s presence. We rejoice in that. But we also lost Bob. We will not see him until our end or The end. This is because of Death, our enemy.
Ralph Stanley claimed that his high lonesome sound was a gift from God. I agree with him. It is a gift to be affected by the wrongness of death even as we hold to the hope of eternal life. For Stanley, his resonance with the struggle for survival and the pain of loss carried with it a sense of purpose. “I’ve got many a letter and a phone call from people saying that that sound, that caused them to change their life and join the church, and I believe that gift was given to me for me to use for that purpose.”*
We can be a gift to others when we intone the high lonesome of living in a world of death, loss, and pain. So let us sit in the sadness of losing Bob Rehm and all the other brothers and sisters we have lost over the last few years. May we tell the truth about death in a way that confronts unbelievers we know with death’s reality. Perhaps God will use our version of “O Death” to draw them to the one who died to conquer Death and gives us resurrection life. When we confess the truth about Christ, we can sing another Stanley song, “Angel Band,” as we approach the end of our days:
“My latest sun is sinking fast, my race is nearly run
My strongest trials now are past, my triumph has begun
Oh bear my longing heart to Him who bled and died for me
Whose blood now cleanses from all sin and gives me victory
Oh come Angel Band, come and around me stand
Oh bear me away on your snow white wings to my immortal home”