Researching stuff for the Black Mask & Pale Rider rewrites, and came across something incredible. I’ve already discovered that elves and the folklore surrounding them are not strictly confined to Europe or the United Kingdom. Elves have rich stories in almost every culture on the planet. From Mi’kmaq First Nations to Mohawk, Iroquois and Ojibwa of North America to Yoruba people of western Africa.
Other things that I’ve discovered, the number of gunslingers in the United States from the high point in the history that would become the Wild West were not white settlers, but in fact African American former and escaped slaves. Trying solely to survive. African Americans were some of the best and hardest working ranchers, the best gunslingers and the most dedicated farmers in the American Midwest (at least, in areas where they had the most freedom, such as the few Free States that existed before entering the Union).
Another thing I learned recently was while I was trying to find the history behind a song that helped inspire one chapter of Black Mask & Pale Rider. Where Shani and Pania meet up with a rich plantation owner in Shreveport, Louisiana and discover his many slaves have actually been zombified. The plantation owner, who coveted the power that the two elves had, would end up paying for his jealousy in the most fatal of ways, just as Shani, Pania, and former slave Ezekiel Morgan would send the zombies off to their final reward hoping they would be able to rest in peace after years of torture.
The song that inspired that chapter was called Oh Death. The author remains unknown, but it was made popular in the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou, and sung by Ralph Stanley. There is an irony in that the song was sung by a Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan as a number of clansmen were about to hang a young black man. It was also covered by Jen Titus and used in the Supernatural soundtrack.
The irony I mentioned earlier is because the song is found in many African American spiritual songs. With the song´s origin leading back to African American spirituals, there´s a great deal of irony that a white man who happens to be a Grand Dragon of the KKK happens to be singing it.
Two courses of the song are a conversation between Death and the singer (the song has also been called A Conversation with Death). This can be seen with each opening of the two long verses.
The first long verse opens with:
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.
When God is gone, and the Devil takes hold,
Who’ll have mercy on your soul.
Well I am death, none can tell,
I’ll open the door to heaven or hell.
The second long verse opens with:
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.
One of the original recordings of this song dates back to the 1920’s and a copy is kept in the Library of Congress and recorded by Bessie Jones & Georgia Sea Island Singers.
Here´s the Ralph Stanley version of the song, as it appeared in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.
And here´s the more recent adaptation by Jen Titus as it appeared in the Supernatural episode, Two Minutes To Midnight.