Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Five Spooky Songs

In a pre-literate society, people sat around fires while bards sang or recited long narratives to them. Songs were more than something to dance to; they were another form of storytelling.

We still have a tradition of "story songs," but they're unusual enough now that we notice it when a song tells a story, or when lyrics are coherent at all. I had to think a while about which songs in my own iTunes library evoked the same creepy feeling as a book or a movie, and this is the best list I could come up with. Suggest your own creepy songs in the comments.

1. "Angel of Death," Hank Williams. This one's an obvious choice. Hank Williams first recorded it at home, then cut a version of it with the Drifting Cowboys. You can listen to both versions here, and I don't know which is creepier; Hank's doomed solo, or the weirdly lilting single. "In the great book of John, you're warned of the day/When you'll be laid beneath the cold clay/The Angel of Death will come from the sky/And claim your poor soul when the time comes to die."

2. "Gloomy Sunday," Sinead O'Connor. Also known as "the Hungarian Suicide Song," this song comes with a ghost story attached. Its composer, Reszo Seress, did kill himself — in 1968, 35 years after he wrote the song — but the song was blamed for any number of suicides in the 1930s. That seems to be an urban legend, a twisted marketing ploy to sell a sad song in the middle of the Depression, but the song is creepy enough on its own. Billie Holiday's version is the most famous, but it's been covered by everyone from Paul Robeson to The Smithereens.

3. "Long Black Veil," Mick Jagger & The Chieftains. It feels like an old folk song; it's not. Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill wrote it in 1959, and Lefty Frizzell was the first to record it. It's since been covered by dozens, if not hundreds, of singers, from Joan Baez to Johnny Cash to the Dave Matthews Band. It's the story of a man who goes to the gallows rather than give his alibi: he was sleeping with his best friend's wife. I like this version because I believe Mick's voice.

4. "Mercy Street," Peter Gabriel. An idiosyncratic choice, but something about this song has always felt menacing to me. "Let's take the boat out, wait until darkness . . ." The song is inspired by and dedicated to the poet Anne Sexton, who killed herself at the age of 45.

5. "Tomorrow, Wendy," Concrete Blonde. This entire album (Bloodletting) is self-consciously spooky, from the first song, "Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)" to this one, which closes the set. I bought this CD for the single "Joey," but this song is the only one that achieves the feeling of threat they seem to be trying for. "Hey, hey, goodbye/Tomorrow, Wendy's going to die." Yikes, man.


Anonymous said...

"Banks of the Ohio" by everyone but Bill Monore and Doc Watson will do, right?(

"Singapore" by Tom Waits (

"Nautical Disaster" by The Tragically Hip (

"Ashes to Ashes" by David Bowie (

Anything by Yoko Ono is also nightmarish.

-- Ed

Anonymous said...

One more:

"The Black Rider" by Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs (

-- Ed

Kieran Shea said...

what? no roky erickson?


sarah f. said...

The creepiest songs I know are "Where the Wild Roses Grow" by Nick Cave and "The Shortest Story" by Harry Chapin.

John Schramm said...

I always thought Nights In White Satin was spooky. Especially that flute solo.

Probably has to do with something the song reminded meof, but I don't remember what it was.

AnswerGirl said...

Ooh, good call on Roky Erickson, but I must admit that I don't have any of his tracks in my iTunes library. I do own a cassette of the tribute album, "Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye," but I don't listen to my cassettes much any more . . .

Peggy & Scott said...

The Specials - Ghost Town
Nick Cave - Red Right Hand
This is Halloween - The Citizens of Halloween
Black Sabbath - The Wizard
Atlanta Rhythm Section - Spooky!

AnswerGirl said...

And thinking about songs I own only on cassette, I forgot Nirvana's unplugged cover of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" (better known as "In the Pines"), which you can see here: . That version is creepy enough all by itself, but watching Kurt Cobain sing it — less six months from his own death — feels like looking into a grave.

sarirose said...

As one that has lived awhile, I think of lot of those bands were Spooky and scary. The Smiths sounded like a funeral dirge.

Raven's Here!!:) said...

hmm these r somewhat creepy but the 2 most creepy songs to me have to be the most seemingly innocent ones
The Beatles - Come Together
The Beatles - I Am The Walrus