Death Songs

Media coverage of Kelly Gissendaner’s execution in the small hours of Wednesday morning stressed the apparent anomalies of an act that, in this country, is hardly anomalous: that she was first woman to be killed by the State of Georgia in seventy years and that she sang as she died. Even a letter on her behalf from Pope Francis could not convince the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency.

Eyewitness accounts told of her final rendition of Amazing Grace amidst sobs and bursts of prayer while she lay strapped to the gurney in the purgatorial green-brick execution chamber at the Jackson State Prison. Outside the gates of the facility a group of anti-death penalty activists intoned the same hymn, one often claimed as the best-known and most-oft sung on the planet.

For many, singing at an execution summons up thoughts of the Old West, the condemned’s last moments accompanied by evangelical song. One of the most famous of these scenes comes from the execution of Tom Horn in 1903 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He’d allegedly gunned down a fourteen-year-old boy during a range war. The Denver reporter John Charles Thompson described the scene:

“Would you like us to sing, Tom?” asked Charlie Irwin. “Yes, I’d like that,” responded Horn. So, while [Deputy Sheriff] Proctor buckled straps that bound Horn’s arms and legs, the Irwins, each in a rich tenor, sang a rather lugubrious song popular on the range, Life is Like a Mountain Railroad.”

Horn’s memoir published in Denver a year after his death included letters and statements from his friends, as well as the text of the song (heard here in a version by Johnny Cash). “Life is like a mountain railroad, with an engineer that’s brave; We must make the run successful, from the cradle to the grave; Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels; never falter, never quail; Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.” The book prints all four verses and the chorus, suggesting that the brothers sang the whole thing, until—and perhaps after—the trap door had opened beneath Horn.

A prefatory description imbues the scene with more feeling than does Thompson’s reportage:

“Tom Horn counted among his most valued friends the Irwin brothers, Charles and Frank, and rightly so; for when his last moments had come (moments from which the most devoted shrank), theirs were the last friendly faces he beheld—these two, who were there to sustain him, singing, at the scaffold’s foot, with brave, tear-choked voices, a song to cheer their former comrade in his extremity.”

Unlike Gissendaner, who repented of her crime and on her deathbed bewailed her commissioning of the murder of her husband, Horn maintained his innocence until the end.

From Old Europe to the Old West, hymns at pubic executions were meant to repudiate the intransigent or to console those who had admitted their guilt, thus confirming in song that murderers, too, would receive Jesus’ forgiveness even if judicial authority denied mercy. In eighteenth-century Leipzig Bach’s choir processed behind the condemned to the scaffold while singing Lutheran chorales. Those to be executed almost always confessed since they had been tortured to do so, not for the purposes of confirming guilt but as a service to the accused in order to save their souls.

In the present day, public executions by ISIS in Syria have likewise been accompanied by live music. Maher Meshaal, the man referred to sardonically in Western reports as the “chief ISIS singer-songwriter” was killed by a U. S. drone in July. Ironically, it wasn’t his own music, but “the rocket’s red glare” that sent him to his death. Meshaal’s own solo cantillations and studio-produced songs of blood-curdling devotion live on in YouTube, resounding there in spite of their denuded digital form with a chilling intensity demonstrating that the ultimate matter of salvation can spawn the most unsettling music imaginable.

In many cultures individuals are equipped with death songs that will carry them across the threshold to the next world. The Lutherans of Bach’s time were instructed to learn chorale melodies that they could sing on their deathbeds to steal themselves against the final assault of the devil. One favorite for these purposes was Wenn mein Stundlein vorhanden ist (When my little hour is at hand), an affirmative major melody with which Bach closes his cantata from 1723 Christus, der ist mein Leben, Sterben ist mein Gewinn (Christ is my life, dying my is gain). If possible, the dying used these hymns to sing themselves to sleep for the last time. The snarling lions and gnawing rats that the devil conjured around the deathbed were as terrifying as the fears of the scaffold, or so claimed many Lutheran pastors: one’s own pious music stilled the demons.

Harry Paige’s 1970 book Songs of the Teton Sioux, one of the most humane and beautiful books of ethnomusicology ever written, contains this deathbed scene, one that in the aftermath of Gissendaner’s execution summons thoughts of that Georgia chamber whose only windows opened onto the observation room:

“There are few poets in the records of western civilization known to have sung their swan song, who have faced death with only the armor of song. Yet the Sioux has done this—and still continue to do it. The writer will never forget the old woman who lay dying in the alien sterility of a hospital room in Rosebud, South Dakota, in the summer of 1964. She motioned for the nurse to draw open the shades so that she might see the hills, the sun and the sky. Then, in a feeble voice that held no hint of fear, she began to sing her death song. The words were fragile and confused, but the last part clear: ‘le makoce waste wi kiN wana ehake waNmayakuwe.’ (This land is beautiful. O Sun, now for the last time, come greet me again.)”

The spurious calm of the Georgia execution chamber was unmasked by Gissendaner’s distress even as she sang on the gurney, her voice fading before the color of her face turned from “crimson to gray in a matter of minutes” and her “hands [went] from flexing to stillness,” as one eyewitness put it. The crackle of the auto-da-fé may have been inaudible in the death chamber but it was there nonetheless.

Gissendaner’s troubled singing made me think of the steadfast voice of Protestant Reformer Jan Hus, who died on the heretic’s pyre six hundred years ago this past July. Here is an English translation of his student Peter of Mladonovice’s eyewitness account of the last that was heard of Hus:

“When the executioners at once lit [the fire], the Master immediately began to sing in a loud voice, at first ‘Christ, Thou son of the God, have mercy upon us,’ and secondly, Christ, Thou son of the God, have mercy upon me,” and in the third place, ‘Thou Who art born of Mary the Virgin.’ And when he began to sing the third time, the wind blew the flame into his face. And thus praying within himself and moving his lips and the head, he expired in the Lord.”

The Atlanta nightly news program 11Alive published a 45-second segment of Gissendaner’s final words from the death chamber in which she asks prison pastor Susan Bishop “to let my kids know I went out singing Amazing Grace.” For the time being her death song itself has not been resurrected from the state department of correction’s audio vaults. It’s hardly surprising that this material has not been released. This song would be a more powerful a voice for ending the insanity of the death penalty than would any pope’s.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at