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.