If you grew up with the Monster Mash and decided — based on that small sample size — that there were no decent Halloween songs, I’m here to set the record straight. The really grim and scary songs were all hiding out in the roots music bin, just as the great, old folktales were ones that really hit the mark when it came to ghosts, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night.
The Folklore Center at the Library of Congress had a blog post a few years ago entitled Ghost Stories in Song for Halloween. The first tune recommended was Jean Ritchie singing The Unquiet Grave, “which is both a tender love song and a frank conversation with a ghost.” Writing about Ritchie’s version, the liner notes suggest that the song…
“…is notable for its exhibition of several universal popular beliefs, including a talking ghost, the idea that excessive grief on the part of mourners disturbs the peace of the dead, the troth plight that binds lovers even after death (with the death-kiss perhaps indicating a return of the troth), and the belief that the kiss of a dead person may result in death.“
One of the most haunting versions of this tune was recorded by my favorite Irish band, Solas. And this snippet from the lyrics give a hint of what’s to come.
One kiss, one kiss of your lily white lips, one kiss is all I crave
One kiss, one kiss of your lily white lips and return back to your grave…”
Well, you get the idea. Give it a listen.
The late Ralph Stanley became an American icon years after he and his brother Carter formed one of the early bluegrass groups, The Stanley Brothers. His chilling version of O Death for the film O Brother Where Art Thou? was part of the Grammy-winning soundtrack and made his voice recognizable to millions. I’ve also included a video of Ralph Stanley and Patty Loveless singing the murder ballad Pretty Polly. In some traditional versions, the murdered Polly returns to get her revenge by ripping out the heart of the murderer. This version is gory enough.
The blues and jazz cats also have a great number of songs for the season. Nina Simone does her usual masterful job with the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins hit I Put a Spell on You. Of course, no Halloween-influenced roots music list would be complete without at least one song from bluesman Robert Johnson. “Legendarily making a Faustian deal at a mythological crossroads,” Johnson recorded “Hellhound on My Trail” during his second Texas sessions, a year before his mysterious, and untimely death. Hellhound is followed by Elise LeGrow breaking the Bo Diddley classic Who Do You Love “down to a new set of bare bones. Watch her rasping howl bring ‘a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind’ to life.”
And although it isn’t spooky, I just had to include Nanci Griffith’s beautiful Once in a Very Blue Moon, as we will see that second full moon of the month on October 31st —– Halloween! How perfect that we get to hear Griffith’s distinctive twang as it begins…
“I found your letter in my mailbox today / You were just checkin’ if I was okay / And if I miss you, well, you know what they say / Just once, in a very blue moon…”
Climb under the sheets if you need to, but don’t get spooked.
More to come…