This song was written by John Kirkpatrick, but I learned it from Martin Carthy’s 1971 LP Landfall. The song is written in the extremely rare Locrian mode. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only song I’ve ever heard in that mode. It’s only recently that I’ve got my head round the modes (and I still can’t exactly remember which one’s which). But to check out for yourself what the Locrian sounds like, play a scale on a piano keyboard, starting on a B and using only the white notes. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? And yet, somehow, while there is a certain strangeness about the tune of ‘Dust to Dust’, it doesn’t sound completely outlandish or contrived (and it’s just right for the macabre subject matter of the song). John must still have been quite young when he wrote this piece. Early twenties, I’d guess. I don’t know if there was anything in particular that prompted him to write this, or if it was just an interesting challenge for a budding songwriter. When I learned the song – in my early twenties – I’d had very little exposure to death. As the years roll by, however, we are all inevitably affected by death, and it has become increasingly apparent that, not only has John Kirkpatrick concocted a wonderfully memorable tune, but there’s also a lot of wisdom in the words of this song . My Mum died earlier this year, but she had lived to a fairly ripe old age, was very frail, and had dementia, so her death was a welcome release (indeed a close family friend referred to her funeral as a “joyous celebration”, which is exactly what it was). The deaths that have affected me most deeply have been those of my musical friends, Howard Salt and Dave Parry, both from cancer; and babies Edmund (still-born) and Patrick (born with cystic fibrosis, lived just a few weeks) who both died at a time when we were expecting our second child, and only months after my Dad’s death from cancer. Death come early, death come late… The song’s lyrics draw very heavily, of course, on words from the Anglican funeral service, and other biblical passages. The refrain is from the Order for the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer:
Then, while the earth shall be cast upon the body by some standing by, the Priest shall say, FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
The last verse echoes Ecclesiastes Chapter 3
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
while the lines
Rich and poor all go the same, I’ll bury you all there is no favour. Don’t spend your life in seeking gain, No gold from death will ever save you
remind me of this wonderful verse from Sternhold and Hopkins’ “Old Version” of Psalm 39
Man walketh like a shade, and doth in vain himself annoy, In getting goods, and cannot tell who shall the same enjoy.
And the whole song (like this traditional song) shares the sentiment of this passage from the Anglican burial service:
When they come to the grave, while the corpse is made ready to be laid into the earth, the Priest shall say, or the Priest and Clerks shall sing: MAN that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death…
When my Dad died, I had been to only a couple of funerals, and had not particularly thought about what to expect. I was brought up sharp when, following behind the coffin, at the entrance to the Church the vicar intoned that passage. The truth contained in it was brought into sharper focus by the rather Gothic language (and not diminished by the fact that, personally, I have no sure and certain hope of eternal life). Twenty years on, at my Mum’s funeral, I don’t recall that passage being used – or if it was, it was in a more modern translation. But really, for the sheer majesty of the words, you can’t beat the Authorised Version.
Dust to Dust