On the Music in This Hour [Playlist]

A note on the music we used in The Wake

November 30, 2014

At my grandmother's funeral, the only solace my mother would accept was listening to "The Old Rugged Cross." As we’ve been working on the death series, I’ve become fascinated with the music different cultures use to honor their dead. Around the world, we use music in funeral to touch our hearts and bathe our souls. In Vietnam, there is a proverb that goes, "The living need light and the dead need music."

Going through the songs for The Wake, I feel honored and humbled to be in the sacred space of this music. 


Tracks 1 and 2

“We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City” is a traditional funeral song from New Orleans. This song has two versions: the slow and mournful dirge that's played during the procession to the funeral, and a fast-paced march that’s played after it. The contrast between the two versions reflects that death can be both a time to grieve and to celebrate.


Track 3

On the Philippine island of Luzon, there’s a tradition where dancers skip between bamboo sticks as they’re rhythmically struck together. According to Smithsonian Folkways, the dance represents the feet of the warrior. The shouting near the end of the piece is meant to wake the deceased for their journey.

Communicating with the recently deceased was a main theme in much of the music we listened through for this hour, either waking them or guiding them to move on from the land of the living.


Track 5

Funeral-singing traditions of the Middle East pre-date Islam. This song is from the Druze tradition in Lebanon, where certain funeral songs reflect the dead person's caste. According to Smithsonian Folkways (worth checking out, if you want to dig deeper) this song is for an old man of political and social importance.


Tracks 6 and 7

In Ghana, skilled craftsmen build beautiful, ornate coffins celebrating the deceased. Often, these sculptural caskets symbolize what people did in life -- a fish for a fisherman or a cocoa bean for a farmer. Special caskets carved into the shape of an eagle were reserved for chiefs.