Opinion

The lonesome death of the scary song

It’s that time of year again – when the late Bobby ‘Boris’ Picket’s greatest hit, “The Monster Mash” comes back to life for its annual appearance on radio playlists across the land. But aside from the ritual revival of the odd novelty tune, airplay for scary songs is a rare thing these days. That’s a shame, because the scary song has much to commend it.

Once upon a simpler time, before the ascendency of mass media, singing songs was many an ordinary evening’s entertainment. There were funny songs, sad songs, love songs, lust songs, drinking songs, airs, ballads, shanties, ditties and doggerel to reflect the vast variety of popular concerns.

The classic folk tradition included songs like “O Death” (best known nowadays for Ralph Stanley‘s version on the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack), a song whose chilling homespun lyrics underlined the terrifying, perpetual proximity of the Grim Reaper.

That made sense: life wasn’t all love and lust all the time back then, any more than it is in our time. Just like the singers and storytellers back in the day, our contemporary media serve up a monstrous mash of horror, comedy, suspense, action, drama, and the like, reflecting the needs and the lives of the audience.

That includes the scary stuff, in a big way. Television is a notorious bloodbath, even during family viewing hours. Film-makers vie to make the most shocking schlock ever to induce a scream. And the internet is practically a living graveyard of gruesome stuff your mother wouldn’t let you look at, from the demise of the latest dictator on down.

The exception, sadly, is radio. When was the last time you heard a murder ballad or a ghost song climb the charts? True, there are some spine-tinglers about life in the ghetto, or gruesome dirges about getting off drugs, but an honest-to-goodness haunting number? Forget it. And more’s the pity, for the scary song served many important purposes.

Oh for the days of “Long Black Veil“, eerily illustrating the awful outcome of adultry. Or “Ghost Riders in the Sky” reminding wayward cowboys to change their ways. How about “Ode to Billy Joe,” with its lament for the eponymous suicide? All these songs made their way to the charts within a generation’s memory. But somewhere along the way, the airwaves became more about love and lust than death and despair.

Still, the tradition continued, if only the background: Consider The Twa Sisters, a trad song that entered popular culture as “Dreadful Wind and Rain” by Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia and later Gillian Welch. The song has a plot to rival any horror film: two sisters go down to a stream and one drowns the other in jealousy; the victim’s body washes ashore and her bones and hair are used to make a a fiddle, but the instrument will only play “O the Dreadful Wind and Rain,” — the song’s refrain which is also, implicitly the story of the maid’s murder.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and perhaps radio does too: there was a revival of the scary song in the 70s and through the 80s, mostly on FM. Heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden, who drew on Gothic literature, pagan religion, biblical horror, ancient ritual and myth for their inspirations, led the charge. But their songs rarely charted high on pop radio, Blue Öyster Cult‘s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” and Metallica‘s “Enter Sandman” being more the exception than the rule.

By the time Britney Spears hit big in 1999, formatting had condemned the scary song to its early grave: classic rock was a museum of endlessly spinning old vinyl, new country was an ad for jeans and hairspray, and the pop charts were bookended by bubblegum pop and bleeped-out hip-hop. It seems the scariest thing on the airwaves were the stories of artists’ off-stage excesses. The story remains the same today, though proliferation of songs via the internet has created opportunities for greater variety in the average person’s playlist.

But all the while, as radio has increasingly ignored the scary song, roots musicians of all stripes have continually to draw on the darkness for its depth. Consider a couple of Canadian classics, just as examples.

Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc” (gloriously rendered by Jennifer Warnes) sees our heroine, tied to her stake and welcoming the flames as her lover. “Then Fire, make your body cold / I’m gonna give you mine to hold,” she sings, in a ghastly and gorgeous image that magically transcends horror and arrives at eternal love.

Loreena McKennit’s “The Lady of Shallot” channels all the mystery of Tennyson’s original, telling the tale of a cursed, magical being with a haunting vocal and ghostly instrumentation. You could make a case for this song as a standard-bearer for the scary song as a thing of beauty.

Great songs, eh? And scary, too.

Too bad you won’t hear them on the radio. Muaaahahahaahahahaahahaaaaaa!

Help bring the scary song back from the grave!

Use the comments box below to tell us your favourite murder ballad, ghost song, or tragic tale by a roots musician.

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12 comments

  1. avatar
    Emma 31 October, 2011 at 15:28

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISxnw3la_qs

    It’s not good quality video-wise, but you can hear the song just fine… this is “Baltimore” by Montreal’s Mike O’Brien. It’s a Tim-Burtony song about an evil king finding out that there’s an evil little boy who might well be evil enough to take his place one day, so he goes on a hunt to find and kill the boy. If I’m not mistaken, the song was inspired by a kid in a music class he was teaching…

    I love the chorus. “So you can never go home, never go home, all your friends are dead.”

  2. avatar
    Michael Wrycraft 31 October, 2011 at 16:08

    i can blow that theory right out of the water david.

    i’m not generally a fan of generalization but…i think every hit that britney spears and most of her peers have had on the radio is scary and horrifying.

    so horrifying in fact… i can’t listen to most commercial radio… it makes me want to grab a rifle and pick people off from the top of a building… which as i see it could make a great murder ballad which admittedly probably wouldn’t make it onto the radio.

    one of the best and most gruesome songs ever heard on canadian commercial radio was a big hit during my teens in the 70’s. it was called “timothy” by the buoys (from scranton, pennsylvania, about being trapped in a mine and eating a co-worker.

    It was written by Rupert Holmes, who also wrote the massive hit “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)

    here is a link to a story about the songs history… i have to say after reading the facts i have a lot more respect for rupert and his mostly unknown behind-the-scenes writing and arranging work.

    http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=2005

    here are the lyrics… god bless 70’s freeform radio… gone and never to return

    Trapped in a mine that had caved in
    And everyone knows the only ones left
    Was Joe and me and Tim
    When they broke through to pull us free
    The only ones left to tell the tale
    Was Joe and me

    Timothy, Timothy, where on earth did you go?
    Timothy, Timothy, God what don’t I know?

    Hungry as hell no food to eat
    And Joe said that he would sell his soul
    For just a piece of meat
    Water enough to drink for two
    And Joe said to me, “I’ll take a swig
    And then there’s some for you.”

    Timothy, Timothy, Joe was looking at you
    Timothy, Timothy, God what did we do?

    I must have blacked out just around then
    ‘Cause the very next thing that I could see
    Was the light of the day again
    My stomach was full as it could be
    And nobody ever got around
    To finding Timothy

    Timothy, Timothy, where on earth did you go?
    Timothy, Timothy, God why don’t I know?

    Timothy…

    getting hungry… gotta go…

    cheers, michael

    ps: check out blair packham’s song “one hit wonder” about bobby boris pickett in later years dragging his tired old shtick around to shopping malls and numerous low-rent personal appearances trying to exploit whatever fame his “monster mash” could still generate.

  3. avatar
    Rachel B 31 October, 2011 at 17:10

    Funny you should mention The Two Sisters: just heard Lucy Ward sing it at a gig on Saturday night and she recorded it on her recently released first CD, “Adelphi Has to Fly”. It was great and very creepy. Scary stuff, keeds!

    Also, back in the 90s Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds put out a stupendous album called “Murder Ballads”. Too bad it didn’t get much airplay on mainstream radio.

  4. avatar
    Peter 31 October, 2011 at 17:45

    We used to run “Necrophiliacs Hour” every Halloween at WTBS radio (MIT). Some of the standards were “Tell Laura I Love Her”, “Last Kiss”, Ebony Eyes”, “Dead Man’s Curve”, “Running Bear”, “Teen Angel”, “Leader of the Pack”,”Death Cab for Cutie”, and “Laurie(Strange Things Happen”. The last of which was about a guy who meets a girl, gives her a ride home, finds her forgotten sweater in his car, takes it back to the house where her parents explain she died a year ago. They just don’t write songs like that anymore.

  5. avatar
    Patrick Hutchinson 31 October, 2011 at 18:16

    Wow, what a topic! Where to start? Well, wasn’t there an (implied, at least) infanticide in Ode to Billy Joe as well, a verse or two earlier? Certainly in the folk tradition(s) there’s a whole slew of older pre-planned-parenthood infanticide songs, like The Four Marys, and Carlisle Wall: I can’t find Silly Wizard’s great version, but here’s one by Alasdair Roberts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HueKECoX2f0 I hadn’t heard of Alasdair ’til now, evidently he has a big penchant for gruesome trad; I see he also does Cruel Brother (fratricide) Long Lankin (infanticide again, but in this instance perpetrated as an act of revenge by a mason who got stiffed by a client) and Little Sir Hugh (I think without the pogrom-provoking blood-libel child-sacrifice implications present in some versions)
    Elsewhere, you’ve got inter-class adultery & murder in Matty Groves, that Fairport did such a great version of: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1it7BP5PckI “A grave, a grave, Lord Donald said, to put these lovers in/But bury my lady on the top, for she was of noble kin”
    Others…ghost-wise there’s She Moved Through the Fair, of course; and the saddest sea-shanty out, Lowlands Away, here in the Corries great version that haunted me as a kid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtvzdmzQxPc&feature=related
    Then there’s all the House Carpenter/Demon Lover ones, but I’m gonna be here all night if I keep this up…

  6. avatar
    Michael Wrycraft 31 October, 2011 at 21:23

    you know… technically… mojo nixon and skid roper’s tune “don henley must die!” could be considered a murder ballad… or an intent to murder ballad.

    and on this subject wouldn’t every gospel song about jesus rising from the dead be eligible. again… technically… jesus was the first zombie!

    going up to my roof to wait for the great pumpkin… probably get rocks again

    spooky halloween to all

  7. avatar
    Richard Flohil 31 October, 2011 at 22:46

    Great piece, David — and look what a hornet’s next you’ve stirred up! My favourite scary song is by that remarkably odd performer, Scramin’ Jay Hawkins.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orNpH6iyokI

    Check it out, folks!
    Richard

    PS: As some of you know, I send out a daily video link to some 250 people; this was my Hallowe’en submission, I totally forgot about Monster Mash… oh well, next year!

  8. avatar
    Scott Merrifield 1 November, 2011 at 10:11

    I am surprised that nobody has raised “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm” written in 1934 by R. P. Weston and Bert Lee and performed by Stanley Holloway, covered by many including The Kingston Trio and The Clancy Brothers.

    Closer to home there is an entire album of traditional and original songs based on PEI ghost stories that Teresa Doyle put out in 1991, no longer available on her site.

  9. avatar
    Beverly Kreller 1 November, 2011 at 12:24

    Hey David, great piece! I was going to add a note about Blair Packham’s song “one Hit Wonder” about Bobby “Boris” Picket and”Monster Mash” but I see Wrycraft has already mentioned it. We listen to that tune every Halloween…along with Monster Mash”. Packham is such a great writer! Anyway I really love a good murder ballad and HOTCHA! tries to keep it “alive” with tunes like “Sweet Miss Sally” (original), “Ol’ Man Mose” (Louis Armstrong 1929) , as well as a killer version of “Long Black Veil.” ….maybe “I Put a Spell on You” will be our next HOTCHA-fied cover tune!

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