Behind the Song: “And When I Die” by Laura Nyro

The first song she ever wrote, it was a hit for Blood, Sweat & Tears, and first recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary

Laura Nyro, “And When I Die,” 1968.

It’s one of those songs which resonates forever, in that distinctive melody, which is both yearning and knowing, and in the folk wisdom woven into the words.

Remarkably, it was her very first song. Normally, except with rare exceptions (John Prine, Leonard Cohen), songwriters spend years writing songs before they write a masterpiece. If they ever do. She did it when she was 17.

When I interviewed Laura in 1994, I asked about the origins of her songwriting, not knowing where it began. She said she loved all the arts – painting, jazz. But by 17, she said, “I just knew music was the language I wanted to speak.”

When she said “And When I Die” was the first song she wrote – at 17 – I was surprised. How did she reach that level of songwriting at that age?

“I was reading poetry from the time I was really young. And I really liked poetry. So by the time I started writing songs, I was in a poetic frame of mind. And I’d also been passionately listening to music since I was really young. I was listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis when I was 14. So by my late teens, when I wrote ‘And When I Die,’ I was already deep inside of music.”

She didn’t labor over it, she said. It came naturally because it expressed “a certain kind of folk wisdom teenagers have.”

“And When I Die.” It was Laura’s very first song, when she was 17. It almost always takes great songwriters years of writing songs before they begin to write anything great. Who writes a poignantly powerful song with wisdom about the cycle of life when they’re just starting out, before writing all those mediocre ones first?

Peter, Paul & Mary actually recorded it first, in 1965, before Laura recorded it herself on her debut album in 1966.

But it was Blood, Sweat & Tears who had the biggest hit with it. They
recorded it with a funkified arrangement, punctuated by their famous horn section. It came out in 1968 on their self-titled second album.

Peter, Paul & Mary, “And When I Die,” 1965, the first recording.
Blood, Sweat & Tears, “And When I Die”

“And When I Die”
By Laura Nyro

And when I die
and when I’m dead, dead and gone,
There’ll be one child born and
a world to carry on, to carry on


I’m not scared of dying
and I don’t really care
If it’s peace you find in dying,
well, then let the time be near
If it’s peace you find in dying,
when dying time is here,
Just bundle up my coffin cause
it’s cold way down there,
I hear that’s it’s cold way down there,
yeah, crazy cold way down there

And when I die and when I’m gone,
There’ll be one child born and
a world to carry on, to carry on


My troubles are many, they’re as deep as a well
I can swear there ain’t no heaven but I pray there ain’t no hell
Swear there ain’t no heaven and pray there ain’t no hell,
But I’ll never know by living, only my dying will tell,
Only my dying will tell, yeah, only my dying will tell

And when I die and when I’m gone,
There’ll be one child born and
a world to carry on, to carry on


Give me my freedom for as long as I be
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me,
And all I ask of dying is to go naturally, only want to go naturally

Don’t want to go by the devil, don’t want to go by the demon,
Don’t want to go by Satan, don’t want to die uneasy,
Just let me go naturally

And when I die and when I’m gone,
There’ll be one child born and
a world to carry on, to carry on


© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group

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