Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Hungarian suicide song – Gloomy Sunday

In 1933 the Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress and poet László Jávor wrote the song Vége a világnak (‘End of the world’) which had the alternate title Szomorú vasárnap (‘Sad Sunday’).  The song gained a very special reputation: that dozens of people, on hearing it, had committed suicide.

The original version portrayed the image of a desolate and destroyed landscape; Javor changed the theme to be one of a man lamenting his dead lover.  He considers that if they will only be reunited again in death, then perhaps he shall commit suicide:

Gloomy Sunday with a hundred white flowers
I was waiting for you my dearest with a prayer
A Sunday morning, chasing after my dreams
The carriage of my sorrow returned to me without you
It is since then that my Sundays have been forever sad
Tears my only drink, the sorrow my bread...

Gloomy Sunday

This last Sunday, my darling please come to me
There'll be a priest, a coffin, a catafalque and a winding-sheet
There'll be flowers for you, flowers and a coffin
Under the blossoming trees it will be my last journey
My eyes will be open, so that I could see you for a last time
Don't be afraid of my eyes, I'm blessing you even in my death...

The last Sunday

[Literal translation from Phespirit] A year or so later the song was first recorded in English by Paul Robeson and then, more famously, by Billie Holiday.  The lyrics they used made the suicide theme clearer, although Holiday’s had to add an extra verse to say that the whole thing was a dream.  Suicide was a difficult subject to discuss in a popular song, after all:

Sunday is gloomy, my hours are slumberless
Dearest the shadows I live with are numberless
Little white flowers will never awaken you
Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you
Angels have no thought of ever returning you
Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?

Gloomy Sunday

Gloomy is Sunday, with shadows I spend it all
My heart and I have decided to end it all
Soon there'll be candles and prayers that are sad I know
Let them not weep let them know that I'm glad to go
Death is no dream for in death I'm caressing you
With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessing you

Gloomy Sunday

Dreaming, I was only dreaming
I wake and I find you asleep in the deep of my heart, here
Darling, I hope that my dream never haunted you
My heart is telling you how much I wanted you
Gloomy Sunday

(Here’s a recording of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ sung by Paul Whiteman for your listening pleasure – if you dare!)

And then the stories began, stories of dozens of people killing themselves after hearing this song, leaving behind the lyrics in suicide notes.

In February of 1936, Budapest Police were investigating the suicide of a local shoemaker, Joseph Keller. The investigation showed that Keller had left a suicide note in which he quoted the lyrics of a recent popular song. The song was "Gloomy Sunday".

The fact that a man chose to quote the lyrics of a little-known song may not seem very strange. However, the fact that over the years, this song has been directly associated with the deaths of over 100 people is quite strange indeed.

Following the event described above, seventeen additional people took their own lives. In each case, "Gloomy Sunday" was closely connected with the circumstances surrounding the suicide.


The stories were, in fact, all bunkum and just part of a promotional campaign for the song (an early example of viral marketing).  And they did grow steadily stranger and less plausible – perhaps the ultimate being “an errand boy in Rome, who, having heard a beggar humming the tune, parked his cycle, walked over to the beggar, gave him all his money, and then sought his death in the waters beneath a nearby bridge”.

It is true, though, that the song was banned by several radio stations, including the BBC who only allowed it on their playlists again in this century.  But it was banned by the BBC largely because of their opinions on the kind of hearty fare that the listening public should get during the war.  It is also true that the composer, Rezső Seress, committed suicide, but that was in 1968 and was likely from depression after never having managed to write another successful song in the 35 years since penning ‘Gloomy Sunday’.

I do wonder if this story might have been the inspiration for Monty Python’s skit of the weaponized joke.  Could a cursedly sad song fall into the hands of the army, would they refine it?  And what would happen if Lord Haw-Haw was broadcasting it into Britain during the Blitz?

Or what about a bizarre assassination attempt: a diabolical scheme to kill the king by a visiting bard singing the cursed song in his very hall?  Or at a Royal Command Performance at Albert Hall - a famous singer has been brainwashed by Hugo Drax and James Bond must stop his next plan for revenge on Great Britain.  Was that what really happened to Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre?

Hair thieves

The New York Times report that across America salons are under siege from thieves targeting their stock of human hair extensions:

The thieves pulled the iron bars out of the windows, outsmarted the motion detector that would have triggered a burglar alarm and did not give the safe or cash register a second look.

Instead they went straight for what was most valuable: human hair. By the time the bandits at the My Trendy Place salon in Houston were finished, they had stolen $150,000 worth of the shop’s most prized type, used for silky extensions.

The break-in was part of a recent trend of thefts, some involving violence, of a seemingly plentiful material. During the past two months alone, robbers in quest of human hair have killed a beauty shop supplier in Michigan and carried out heists nationwide in which they have made off with tens of thousands of dollars of hair at a time.

(from the New York Times)

When I saw the headline “Thieves target human hair”, I didn’t think of salon break-ins so much as razor gangs plucking the hair from their victim’s heads.

Imagine a dark city street, a young woman walking back to her car.  Suddenly a hand covers her mouth and she is dragged into a van; she sees the glint of a knife and feels her neck exposed by a rough yank on her hair; she fears the worst.  But the savage blow cuts only the tresses from her head; the van door opens and she is thrown out, shocked and confused, into the night street.

The motivation given for this spate of robberies is that the hair extensions are simply valuable.  Surely that’s just to avoid alarming the populace and the real objective is a more esoteric one.  Are they constructing some sort of hair golem?  Are they using them to make voodoo fetishes?  Will they be woven into a hair shirt, perhaps to summon back the spirit of some long dead monk or ascetic?

Or are they looking for some specific hair, was the hair of some ancient sorcerer turned into a wig that has found its way into the salon trade?  Maybe it was changed from a wig into a set of extensions, some of which were sold.  So the crimes escalate from break-ins to seemingly random street-side hair slashings as they search for the last strands to rebuild the wig.

And why stop at hair on the head, what about beards?  In a fantasy world, how would dwarves feel about people stealing their beards?  Presumably it takes an eternity for them to grow, and they’re commonly thought of as status symbols, it would be very emasculating to lose it.  Would that disrupt the social order?  A quest, perhaps, to reclaim a chieftain's beard?