22 Old, Sad Blues Songs About Death and Dying

Updated

Old, sad Blues songs are all about telling the best story—even when that story is about death and dying. Add sheer talent and you’ll see why their cultural legacies run deep.

Jump ahead to these sections:

Continue scrolling and discover some personal story snippets, too. Knowing a bit of some of these talented musicians offers even greater clarity to their music.

Blues Songs About Death for a Funeral or Memorial

Whether you’re planning a memorial or funeral service, consider using the following sad blues songs in your loved one’s service or funeral slideshow.

1. “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” from Harlem Street Singer

Rev. "Blind" Gary Davis, born 1896 in North Carolina, was part of the folk and blues revival scenes of old Harlem. 

Davis’ musical style and guitar-picking influenced many great artists before and after his death in the 1960s.

2. “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” from Dark Was the Night

"Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" is (mostly) instrumental. 

As "Blind" Willie Johnson slides a bottleneck across his guitar’s frets, he adds a soulful hum to illuminate the song’s sadness. 

3. “See That My Grave’s Kept Clean” from American Epic, the Collection

Whether by malnutrition, accident, or assault, a lot of famous Blues singers were blind. "Blind" Lemon Jefferson, born 1893, was a singer who was blind at birth giving pause to the root cause of his blindness. 

Recorded on a shellac disc, "See That My Grave's Kept Clean" resonates like an echo chamber filled with heavy surface scratches. It’ll make a somber event out of any funeral slideshow.

4. “Death Letter Blues” from Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Collection

Son House is one of the talented patriarchs of the Delta River Blues. Together with Charlie Patton and Willie Brown, they ushered in the next generation of musicians, including Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson.

5. “New Orleans Function” from New Orleans Nights

“New Orleans Functions” is two songs in one. The first half begins slowly and sadly, with attention paid to brass instruments. Midway through, Muddy Waters introduces a funeral. 

After that, the song becomes lively and buoyant, just as you’d imagine how a band echoes down the sidewalks on Bourbon Street at a New Orleans jazz funeral.

6. “When They Ring Them Golden Bells” from New Orleans Street Singer

"Blind" Snooks Eaglin's song "When They Ring Them Golden Bells" will remind you of Ray Charles as he draws out lyrics with that hint of scratchiness in his voice. The song has somewhat of an upbeat feeling, making it work for a memorial service. Check out these lines:

Don't you hear the bells now ringing
Don't you hear the angels singing
'Tis the glory hallelujah Jubilee

7. “Take My Hand Precious Lord” from Mahalia Jackson Sings the Best-Loved Hymns of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mahalia Jackson didn't just sing the Gospel Blues. She personified the Gospel Blues. Born in 1911, she rose to popularity by her mid-teens, with her first and second recordings in 1936 and 1947. Afterward, CBS hired her to host a first-of-its-kind weekly radio show.

8. “Million Miles Away” from Tattoo

Blues powerhouse Rory Gallagher was born to play music. As you’ll discover in his 1973 album, Tattoo, his strength lies in his guitar playing more than his vocal range. We forgive him considering the musician’s sheer mastery.

9. “Tears in Heaven” from Clapton Chronicles: The Best of Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton's song simultaneously embodies every parent's worst nightmare as well as the path to reconciliation. Given the song's intensely real backstory, it'll work for the memorial of a child.

10. “Angel” from Never a Dull Moment

Jimi Hendrix’s "Angel" was released posthumously. Singer Rod Stewart covers it on his well-known pop album, Never a Dull Moment. The lyrics are short, but the chorus is sweet enough to resonate well at your loved one’s memorial service.

11. “Little Wing” from Axis: Bold as Love

Pairing well with "Angel" is "Little Wing" from Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love album. Both songs would work in conjunction to support your family matriarch, the mother or grandmother who supported her family without question.

12. “Heaven” from Los Lonely Boys

The Los Lonely Boys brothers recorded “Heaven” for their eponymously named album. It’s instrumentally upbeat, but the lyrics come from a space of pain due to loss.

Save me from this prison
Lord, help me get away
Cause only you can save me now from this misery
I've been lost in my own place, and I'm gettin' weary
How far is heaven?

ยป MORE: Being an executor is hard work. Use our planner to help you stay on top of things.

 

Blues Songs About Death to Listen to While You Grieve

Crying in public is okay, but there are just those times when you need to go it alone. 

13. “The Sky is Crying” from Shake Your Money Maker: The Best of the Fire Sessions

Although 1930s influencer Elmore James was a radio repairman by trade, his true talent was as a slide guitarist. 

James was also and often rivaled or compared with the likes of Muddy Waters. But a heart attack in 1963 shortened his life. His skill as a slide guitarist and vocalist earned him admittance into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

14. “Death Bells” from Blues in My Bottle

Houston-born Lightnin' Hopkins developed his tone and style in the 1920s. He was also known to play with the famed musicians "Blind" Lemon Jefferson and Texas Alexander. 

But when modern rock-n-roll enveloped the music scene, Hopkins’ old style was all-but-forgotten. 

Here’s a snippet from “Death Bells”:  

Sound like I'm hearing moaning, death bell ringing all in my head
Sound like I can hear moaning, death bell ringing all in my head
Yeah, I know that I was gonna leave on a chariot, but I didn't know
What kind of chariot gonna take me away from here

15. “Ain’t No Sunshine” from Just As I Am

Bill Withers’ song "Ain't No Sunshine" epitomizes grief. As a break-up song, it's already a devastating tear-jerker. If interpreted for grieving, you may want to play it alone—to weep alone.

16. “Someday After a While (You’ll Be Sorry)” from Ultimate Collection

Freddie King's song works for those troubled relationships that ended unexpectedly. For that reason, the music is better for solitary grieving rather than a memorial or funeral service. Take a look:

I've got to ride that lonesome train
My heart is heavy
With aches and pain
But someday, someday baby
After a while, you'll be sorry

17. “Last Mile Blues” from Traditional Blues Vol. 2

“Last Mile Blues” is one of the oldest, saddest songs about death

Brownie McGhee’s song starts with a lover watching his girlfriend have a hood placed over her head. Then, we find out that her hands are bound behind her back before she’s led thirteen steps to her death. 

18. “Cooling Board Blues” from The Classic "Blind" Willie, Vol. 2

Notably, many Blues musicians lived with and experienced blindness in their lives, but that didn’t impede their talent. For instance, "Blind" Willie McTell could pick up almost any instrument and quickly learn it. The harmonica and accordion were first, followed by the guitar.

His song starts:

Undertaker, undertaker, please take it slow
You're takin' the one I love, won't bring her back no more

19. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” from Luck of the Draw

Bonnie Raitt’s uniquely styled slide guitar and sultry voice have maintained a long presence on the blues scene. "I Can't Make You Love Me" is her most famous single (thus far).

20. “Somebody Will Know Someday” from Afscheidsconcert

Cuby & The Blizzards' “Somebody Will Know Someday” is the kind of song that welcomes the additional sound of a single large ice cube surrounded by amber liquid and flickering candlelight. 

21. “Always With Me” from Day Like This

The vocals on “Always With Me” feel tortured, broken, and crushed. For that reason, the song by Danny Bryant’s Redeyeband works best in solitary grief rather than as part of a funeral service or memorial.

22. “Asking Around for You” from You & Me

Bonamassa’s influences, like many of the artists listed on this blog, run deep and wide. "Asking Around for You," you'll recognize, comes from Clapton and Gallagher, among others. Here’s an excerpt from his song:

If I get to heaven now, oh I'm prayin' now
It'll, it'll be the first thing I do
I'll tap an angel on the shoulder
And I'll be asking around for you

Music, Death, and Dying

Music is well-known to support people’s moods. Sad music will increase people’s feelings of grief, whereas lively music has the opposite effect. And because each of the songs above is old and sad, you may want to keep some tissue boxes available for you and your guests.

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