Musician David Olney ‘died in the yoke’; what does that mean?

Yoked oxen Library of Congress photos 1860
Today most young people probably couldn’t describe a yoke if asked to. This image of two yoked oxen is from the US Library of Congress, 1860.

When I read the sad news that singer-songwriter David Olney had passed away, and I saw how he died, I resorted to an old ‘Southernism’ my grandmother used to say about someone who died while doing what he or she loved—He died in the yoke.

I hadn’t thought of that saying in quite some time.

I do think that is a blessed way to pass on. If you’ve ever watched someone suffer through a long illness, you’ll understand why I feel that way.

Olney isn’t alone. I know of a couple other deaths that occurred while people were doing what they loved, and those lives and deaths remain remarkable for several reasons.

Conservative legend Bill Buckley died in the same circumstances Mr. Olney died in. According to Buckley’s son Christopher, Buckley died at his desk. For a writer, that’s probably the best passage you can ask for.

I also recalled a film we watched years ago. Hachi: A Dog’s Story related the experience of an orphaned dog reluctantly adopted by a professor who in real life was named Hidesaburō Ueno. The professor died suddenly while he was working at Tokyo Imperial University.

The dog, Hachi, was accustomed to meeting his owner after his commute at the train station every day. Long after the professor died, Hachi kept vigil and his story has been written into Japanese culture. Wikipedia has a fairly good account of the real Hachi—the sources are more or less credible. By the way, some critics took issue with the film—it is definitely a tearjerker. Those critics are stupid. The film is an excellent study of loyalty and the relationship between a man and humankind’s oldest friend.

David Olney passed away doing what he loved—performing his music. He was playing at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Santa Rosa Beach, FL. His passing was fast and by all accounts, he simply said he was sorry, closed his eyes, and took his last breath.

Olney wasn’t a household name because he didn’t do pop or write pop tart songs, but his accomplishments in the music world were praiseworthy and those who know music know exactly who Olney is.

I grew up in the US South where both sides of my family had Celtic ancestry. My daughters and I still joke about the preoccupation with death in some small towns where I grew up—I think it goes with that ancestry. I’ll call my elderly mother every day and ask her what’s up and she usually tells me of the latest death.

Whenever someone dies while working, the old saying, “He died in the yoke” pops up. It’s supposed to be a blessing of sorts, the idea that you die while doing what you love and that you’re spared long drawn out suffering.

I can’t locate the origin of that saying. I did locate information about the use of the word yoke which most young people today, lacking experiences in agrarian practices, would not be able to define. There are Biblical usages of the term, and I did find one site that elaborates on that.

While David Olney will no longer perform on stage, his music will remain with us, a legacy of art and love. Would that we all could leave behind a legacy like that.

(Kay B. Day/January 20, 2020)

Country road in South Carolina. (Photo by Indie Art South)
Country road in South Carolina. (Photo by Indie Art South)

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