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Music From Other Spheres

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Music From Other Spheres

From the files of the River Journal's Surrealist Research Bureau - the suicide song

Some tunes are simply otherworldly, and some may even kill. Robert Johnson, the early 1930s blues singer, wrote his song “Crossroads” about meeting the devil as a young man at a crossroads at midnight and trading him his soul in exchange for mastery of the blues guitar. His success would come however only after his death, when he inspired a new generation of acolytes such as Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones.

Paganini, the great 1700s violinist, was widely regarded as the Jimi Hendrix of his day, playing in a wild frenzy with both hands until they bled. His eerie “Devil’s Trill” was said to have come to him in a dream of a wild bacchanal in Hell. When he played it some audience members claimed to see the Devil himself playing alongside him. Mussorgsky’s vision of a Witches Sabbath, “Night on Bald Mountain” (later popularized in the Disney film “Fantasia”) was written in what he later described as “a 12-day white heat of delirium, it seethed within me day and night, I hardly knew what was happening within me.”

A recent viewing of the Hungarian film “Gloomy Sunday” (available at the Sandpoint library) revealed to me yet another example of otherworldly music. The 1999 film (subtitled) purports to tell the story behind the song of the same name. In mid-winter Paris of 1932 a young penniless poet and songwriter named Reszo Seress was forlorn after a breakup with his girlfriend. Gazing out the window at the rain and fog he wrote the song in a scant half hour and sent it off to a publisher. They wrote back almost at once, “Gloomy Sunday has a weird and highly depressing melody and we are sorry to say we cannot use it.”

Reszo decided to try one last time however, and sent it to another publisher who accepted it and here the story took a strange turn. In Berlin a young man requested a band to play to play the new tune and, after it was performed, he shot himself in the head. Within a week a female shop attendant was found hanging from a rope from the roof beams and a suicide note claimed she couldn’t get the tune Gloomy Sunday out of her head. 

Next a young secretary gassed herself and requested Gloomy Sunday be played at her funeral. An 82-year-old man jumped to his death from a 7th floor apartment after playing the tune on his piano. Newspapers around the world were quick to point out other deaths attributed, however faintly, to the song. In London a woman played Gloomy Sunday for two days straight, infuriating her neighbors who finally forced the lock and found her dead of a barbiturate overdose, the automatic arm of her record player repeating the song over and over. Hungary placed a temporary ban on playing the song over the airwaves after a spike in suicides and later, during the war, the BBC would only play the instrumental version, saying the song was “too depressing” for morale during wartime.

The song has since been recorded by artists as diverse as Mel Torme, Billie Holliday and Elvis Costello, but Reszo’s girlfriend, for whom he wrote the song never heard them: she committed suicide in 1933 with the newly released sheet music at her bedside table. Reszo himself lived until 1968 and finally jumped from a sixth floor window, but lived on in great pain for three more days in the hospital before managing to strangle himself in bed with a length of wire. 

‘til next time, a happy new year to all, and All Homage to Xena!

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Author info

Jody Forest Jody Forest When he's not hidden behind the palatial gates of his Dover estate, Casa de Bozo, Jody is out using outdated and corny pickup lines on various gullible women.

Tagged as:

music, Surrealist Research Bureau, Jody Forest, Robert Johnson, Crossroads, Paganini, Mussorgsky, Night on Bald Mountain, Fantasia, Gloomy Sunday, Reszo Seress, suicide song, Mel Torme, Billie Holliday, Elvis Costello, Devil's Trill

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