Season of the Witch: A Halloween Playlist Volume 2

Whoooooo! it’s that time of the year again folks!  The fall season is upon us and that means it’s almost time to celebrate Halloween!  Today’s post is about some of my favorite spooky songs that always make an appearance on my annual Halloween playlist.  Over the years, I’ve often been surprised at exactly how many cool spooky tunes are in existence. 

The origins of Halloween can be found in Sangaubm a Celtic festival that celebrated the harvest season in Gaelic culture.  The Gaels believed that on October 31 (a date on which we now celebrate Halloween) the distance between the living and the deceased dissolved.  At these early Sangaubm festivals, masks and costumes came into use as a way to mimic or placate evil spirits.  As time rolled on, the Sangaubm festival evolved into a celebration of All Hallows Eve.  Flash forward to the present day and there are many elements that define Halloween; costumes, candy, pumpkins and most of all, cool creepy tunes!

 

An explanation regarding what sort of musical elements that exist in many Halloween songs can be found in this 2018 article on blog.thecurent.org: "What musical techniques can make a song sound spooky? (there are) some common musical characteristics of Halloween songs from exploring the genre’s history. But I still wasn’t satisfied— I hadn’t yet found the secret sauce that could make a song sound like Halloween. In search of answers, I identified three potential musical qualities that could make a song sound Halloween-y.   Dissonance: An interval, which is the relationship between two notes, can be described as either consonant or dissonant. A consonant interval has a simple ratio of the frequency between its two notes, which creates a pleasing or resolved sound. For example, the ratio between the frequencies of a C and a G (an interval known as a perfect fifth) is 3:2; a simple, and therefore satisfying ratio. If the ratio is complex, the interval will be dissonant, giving it a “crunchy” or unsettling sound. As we know, the tritone is an especially unsettling interval, and for good reason— it has the most complex frequency ratio of any interval: 45:32 or 64: 45 depending on how it is tuned...This tritone creates tension, keeping the listener on the edge of their seat to hear what chord will come next. However, the following chord releases that tension, and the rest of the song is fairly consonant.  Instrumentation and Timbre: Over the years, certain musical instruments have gained a spooky reputation. A large reason for associations of certain instruments with scary themes comes from film soundtracks. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was used in various silent films in the 1920’s, and in 1931 was featured in the opening credits to the 1932 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, cementing the song’s association with scaring audiences.  Many 20th century horror films feature large string arrangements, including the iconic 1960’s horror flick, Psycho. Classical Minnesota Public Radio host Steve Staruch remembers when Minnesota Orchestra conductor Sarah Hicks was rehearsing the music from the famous shower scene for her orchestra. Several European members of the orchestra had never seen the film, and were unfamiliar with its score. 'They were asking her about how to play this, and they were trying to make it as beautiful as possible, and she said, ‘No, you don’t understand, it’s not beautiful...It’s like five minutes of pure aggression. The pitch isn’t as important as the quality of the sound, the ugliness of the sound, and the out-of-mind quality; it’s just not normal.'  The strings from Psycho are an example of the importance of timbre in creating a spooky atmosphere. Timbre describes the quality of a sound. The notes that the violins are playing in the Psycho shower scene aren’t all that important; what matters is that they are played with a shrill, grating timbre. The timbre of those stabbed violin notes is what makes Staruch describe the piece as 'five minutes of pure aggression.'  Ostinato: A key quality of many Halloween songs is a feeling of suspense. The sensation that there is someone behind your shoulder, that the monster you are hiding from can hear your stifled breathing. Brian Oake identified this suspense as a key element of Halloween culture. 'I don’t like the gore and the blood; that’s not what appeals to me...What I like is that slow, growing sense of unease and menace. For me, songs that do that for you, that create that atmosphere and push you out of your central comfort zone; for me that’s what Halloween is all about.'  One technique used to create suspense in music is the repetition of a musical phrase. This repetition is called ostinato. One famous example of ostinato is the two repeated notes in the theme of Jaws.  Although there are songs associated with Halloween, the holiday’s musical canon (or that of any other holiday) doesn’t come close to the plethora of songs that surrounds Christmas. Maybe no other holiday is central enough to Western culture to garner that many thematic songs, or maybe Halloween is just too nebulous a holiday to have a well-defined genre of music surrounding it.  Even if Halloween is centered around themes of fright, folklore, and evil spirits, the concept of fear can be hard to pin down. What we perceive as scary is largely dependent on our culture. During the Renaissance, the Church told audiences to fear unstable intervals. In the 1960’s Psycho frightened its listeners with the shrill stabs of violins.

 

What was once scary, can in retrospect seem cliché or campy. When first popularized in film soundtracks in the 1970’s and 1980's, the sounds of the theremin awed audiences with its extraterrestrial sound. Now, the electronic instrument has become a cliché for setting a supernatural or unsettling mood. Maybe it is impossible to have a concrete and well-defined genre of Halloween songs, because as sounds age, they lose their fright-factor. If the unknown frightens us while the familiar makes us nostalgic or at ease, then music aiming to frighten us has to be constantly evolving to capture our attention." 

An explanation regarding what sort of musical elements that exist in many Halloween songs can be found in this 2018 article on blog.thecurent.org: "What musical techniques can make a song sound spooky? (there are) some common musical characteristics of Halloween songs from exploring the genre’s history. But I still wasn’t satisfied— I hadn’t yet found the secret sauce that could make a song sound like Halloween. In search of answers, I identified three potential musical qualities that could make a song sound Halloween-y.   Dissonance: An interval, which is the relationship between two notes, can be described as either consonant or dissonant. A consonant interval has a simple ratio of the frequency between its two notes, which creates a pleasing or resolved sound. For example, the ratio between the frequencies of a C and a G (an interval known as a perfect fifth) is 3:2; a simple, and therefore satisfying ratio. If the ratio is complex, the interval will be dissonant, giving it a “crunchy” or unsettling sound. As we know, the tritone is an especially unsettling interval, and for good reason— it has the most complex frequency ratio of any interval: 45:32 or 64: 45 depending on how it is tuned...This tritone creates tension, keeping the listener on the edge of their seat to hear what chord will come next. However, the following chord releases that tension, and the rest of the song is fairly consonant.  Instrumentation and Timbre: Over the years, certain musical instruments have gained a spooky reputation. A large reason for associations of certain instruments with scary themes comes from film soundtracks. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was used in various silent films in the 1920’s, and in 1931 was featured in the opening credits to the 1932 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, cementing the song’s association with scaring audiences.  Many 20th century horror films feature large string arrangements, including the iconic 1960’s horror flick, Psycho. Classical Minnesota Public Radio host Steve Staruch remembers when Minnesota Orchestra conductor Sarah Hicks was rehearsing the music from the famous shower scene for her orchestra. Several European members of the orchestra had never seen the film, and were unfamiliar with its score. 'They were asking her about how to play this, and they were trying to make it as beautiful as possible, and she said, ‘No, you don’t understand, it’s not beautiful...It’s like five minutes of pure aggression. The pitch isn’t as important as the quality of the sound, the ugliness of the sound, and the out-of-mind quality; it’s just not normal.'  The strings from Psycho are an example of the importance of timbre in creating a spooky atmosphere. Timbre describes the quality of a sound. The notes that the violins are playing in the Psycho shower scene aren’t all that important; what matters is that they are played with a shrill, grating timbre. The timbre of those stabbed violin notes is what makes Staruch describe the piece as 'five minutes of pure aggression.'  Ostinato: A key quality of many Halloween songs is a feeling of suspense. The sensation that there is someone behind your shoulder, that the monster you are hiding from can hear your stifled breathing. Brian Oake identified this suspense as a key element of Halloween culture. 'I don’t like the gore and the blood; that’s not what appeals to me...What I like is that slow, growing sense of unease and menace. For me, songs that do that for you, that create that atmosphere and push you out of your central comfort zone; for me that’s what Halloween is all about.'  One technique used to create suspense in music is the repetition of a musical phrase. This repetition is called ostinato. One famous example of ostinato is the two repeated notes in the theme of Jaws.  Although there are songs associated with Halloween, the holiday’s musical canon (or that of any other holiday) doesn’t come close to the plethora of songs that surrounds Christmas. Maybe no other holiday is central enough to Western culture to garner that many thematic songs, or maybe Halloween is just too nebulous a holiday to have a well-defined genre of music surrounding it.  Even if Halloween is centered around themes of fright, folklore, and evil spirits, the concept of fear can be hard to pin down. What we perceive as scary is largely dependent on our culture. During the Renaissance, the Church told audiences to fear unstable intervals. In the 1960’s Psycho frightened its listeners with the shrill stabs of violins. What was once scary, can in retrospect seem cliché or campy. When first popularized in film soundtracks in the 1970’s and 1980's, the sounds of the theremin awed audiences with its extraterrestrial sound. Now, the electronic instrument has become a cliché for setting a supernatural or unsettling mood. Maybe it is impossible to have a concrete and well-defined genre of Halloween songs, because as sounds age, they lose their fright-factor. If the unknown frightens us while the familiar makes us nostalgic or at ease, then music aiming to frighten us has to be constantly evolving to capture our attention."

 

Halloween songs began to rise in popularity during the 1920's, 1930's and 1940's with the release of such songs as Haunted House Blues (Bessie Smith, 1924), Dead Man Blues (Jelly Roll Morton, 1926), The Ghost of the St Louis Blues (Emmett Miller, 1929), Haunted Nights (Duke Ellington, 1929), Haunted House (Ray Noble and His All Stars, 1931), The Nightmare (Cab Calloway, 1931), Ghost in the Graveyard (The Prairie Ramblers, 1935), Mr. Ghost is Going to Town (Louis Prima and His New Orleans Gang, 1936),  Ding Dong the Witch is Dead (The Glenn Miller Orchestra, 1939), Dracula (Gene Krupa, 1939), Dry Bones (Fats Waller, 1940), That Old Black Magic (Glenn Miller, 1942), The Halloween Song (Bing Crosby & Boris Karloff, 1947) and Ghost Riders in the Sky (Gene Autry, 1949). 

 

By the time the 1950’s rolled around, novelty Halloween songs were the order of the day.  From the MEtv site: “Halloween novelty songs were once so ubiquitous that they weren't really novelty — they were simply pop music. The high point was arguably 1958, a year steeped in horror. Movie marquees were lit with titles like The Fly, The Blob and It! The Terror Beyond Space. Four years earlier, the Comics Code Authority had been created to curb the bloody violence in comic books, though titles like House of Mystery and House of Secrets were still perhaps more popular than superheroes. Alfred Hitchcock was spinning dark tales on black & white television.  Naturally, the world of music would follow suit. This love of B-movie monsters and graveyard rock carried through into the early '60s, as Americans tuned in to The Munsters and The Addams Family in their living rooms. In short, there was no better time to be a trick-or-treater.”  

One particular aspect of the fifties novelty Halloween songs I grew up with was the prevalence of many of these songs arose from the surf music scene.  I have yet to find any concrete info on why this came to pass and to this day, the surf music genre is still heavily connected to Halloween music. 

These days, my favorite Halloween songs are a mix of a wide variety of genres; some basic rock, some surf-arama toonage, some cocktail lounge ditties and some ridiculous sounding tunes that just seem to capture that good old Halloween vibe.  Here’s some of the tunes on my Season of the Witch: A Halloween Playlist Vol. 2!

Vincent Price Trivia: "According to Price, when he and Peter Lorre went to view Bela Lugosi's body at Lugosi's funeral, Lorre, upon seeing Lugosi dressed in his famous Dracula cape, quipped, 'Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart just in case?'"

 

This bizarre Halloween nugget always seems to pop up on almost every Halloween compilation I've come across over the years.  I contacted various record collectors and no one seems to know anything about the group and who produced the song.  Hmmm....another Halloween mystery I guess!

 

From Halloween: The Deeper Cuts blog: "Much has been written on the role of Christmas music in American pop, but I’d like to make a substantial argument for the Halloween record, and, by extension, the gothic and fantastic impulses in American music since the birth of rock and roll. The novelty song took on new weight when rock and roll crossed over—strangeness a core aesthetic. The list of 50s rock and roll and doo wop Halloween songs is a long one, and many of them make “Monster Mash” sound pretty weak, even as a joke. As rock and roll grew up, the scares intensified—through the psychedelic era, heavy metal, punk and hip-hop. Hardly some curious subgenre, the Halloween record is the dark B-side to pop’s sunny A-side. Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jeckyll, it’s essential to pop music’s whole. After all, the best music depends on darkness. In our most visceral art, there’s something primeval—a cultural bonding against all of our fears. Rock and rap talk about the skeletons scratching at the closet, they rail against the body-snatchers that threaten everything that makes life worth living. When they can, they befriend the ghosts and monsters, and when they can’t make peace, they go down fighting. Either way, the darkness brings us together."

 

One of the greatest combos that celebrated the Halloween vibe were The Cramps.  "The Cramps were an American punk rock band formed in 1976 and active until 2009. The band split after the death of lead singer Lux Interior. Their line-up rotated frequently during their existence, with the husband-and-wife duo of Interior and lead guitarist and occasional bass guitarist Poison Ivy comprising the only ever-present members. The addition of guitarist Bryan Gregory and drummer Pam Balam resulted in the first complete lineup in April 1976.  They were part of the early CBGB punk rock movement that had emerged in New York. The Cramps were one of the first punk bands, and also widely recognized as one of the prime innovators of psychobilly.' (Wikipedia)

 

No Halloween Playlist would be complete without The Jungle which was recorded by a fella named Diablito.  This high energy tune is often ranked as being part of the exotica genre but I find it's full of that Halloween goodness.  From the Something For The Weekend blog: "Released as a standalone single in October 1962, “The Jungle” by Diablito remains one of the period’s rather more astounding examples of up-tempo lounge exotica. A product of the long-since defunct Parkway Records, the single became an oddity of the genre, disappearing quickly...Penned by Cameo/Parkway regulars Dave Appell (a.k.a. Dave Leon) and Kalman Cohen (a.k.a. Kal Mann and occasionally Jon Sheldon), “The Jungle” rips aloud with vocals shorn by maniacal laughter and crazed howling, while both percussion and bass dance with menace and doom-laden poise.  On top of that, the song’s guitar line borrows much from ‘I Dovregubbens Hall (In the Hall of the Mountain King)’ from “Peer Gynt, Op.23” by Edvard Grieg, adding further depth to an already manic performance. The Diablito recording was one of a few once-off productions for Appell and Cohen in a period that openly embraced the burgeoning rockabilly scene, before moving toward exotica, lounge and eventually jazz."

 

 

Another scary gem is No Costume No Candy by the (gasp!) Swinging Neckbreakers.  From the All Music site: "Brought on together by brothers Tom and John Jorgensen in 1992, the vintage rock of The Swingin' Neckbreakers debuted in their hometown of Trenton, New Jersey with Don Snook on guitar. Along with Tom taking on the bass and vocal duties while John handling the drums, the three piece comfortably set themselves amongst the trash rock company of Southern Culture On The Skids, The Lyres, Flat Duo Jets and The Wooglers. Immediately signing to Telstar Records, the Neckbreakers debuted with the single Diggin' A Grave, followed by their first album Live For Buzz in 1993. Following a European tour and a number of singles that were released on various labels throughout 1994, The Neckbreakers' second album Shake Break came out the next year on Telstar. After Don Snook's departure from the band in 1996, Jeffery Lee Jefferson eventually filled in on guitar and debuted on the 1997 album Kick Your Ass. Return of Rock and Live Live Live were released in 2000."

Next up in this parade of spooky tunes is Ghost Train by The Swanks!  From the Chuck DePrima blog: "Ghost Train was composed by The Swanks (Jack Revelle, lead guitar (age 17), Otha Libby (age 19) rhythm guitar and Bobby Jones (age 18) drums) in 1964 at Riposo Studios in Syracuse, New York. They had been rehearsing at the Jones’ family home in Brewerton, NY on a Saturday morning in preparation for a recording session at Riposo that afternoon.  They were going to be recording a vocal song called My College Cry (which is nothing to write home about). About an hour and a half before they were scheduled to leave for Syracuse, they realized they had no material for the flip side of the 45 rpm record they would be recording. They began to jam and trade ideas back and forth, and the result of their effort over the span of that hour and a half, and three takes at Riposo Studios, was Ghost Train.  Ghost Train was originally released on Charm Records but has since been reissued as a bootlegged on at least two dozen 1960’s instrumental compilations.  It has also been used on the soundtrack of a French film, “Violent Days” & the original Frankenstein movie.  Original copies of the song on the Charm label are crazy rare and can command almost $2,000 on e-bay. 

These days Otha Libby is a retired police officer and college professor living in Seattle, Washington. Jack Revelle played professionally for over 20 years and retired from an automobile sales career and lives north of Syracuse, NY.  During a recent interview Otha Libby said: 'It is the recording The Swanks did at Riposo Studios in Syracuse in 1964. It has been knocking around for 45 years and some kid in (I think) South America put it up as the sound track behind this piece of footage from the original Frankenstein’s Monster movie. There is an interesting story behind how this song came to exist, which I won’t bore you with unless you are interested. It has appeared on numerous compilations of American instrumental rock and was even used in the sound track of a French film.'"

 

The next Halloween song is one that has become popular over the last 5 years or so… John Entwistle’s Boris The Spider recorded by The Who.  Boris The Spider is a great John Entwistle song which was, in fact,  the first tune he ever wrote for The Who.  From the Classic Rock website: "Entwistle was his own influential force within The Who. He was the only member to have had any formal musical training, and was also proficient on multiple brass instruments, as well as being an adept arranger. When he wrestled the platform from Pete Townshend, he was also a capable songwriter. Starting with A Quick One in 1966, almost every album that Entwistle made with The Who included one or more of his songs. They were distinctive for being gruesome, steeped in pitch-black humour and populated by such characters as degenerates, depressives, prostitutes and, in one memorable instance, an arachnid named Boris. That latter song, Boris The Spider, was the most requested that The Who played on stage, which piqued Townshend no end."

 

Besides scary tunes, I’ve always loved humorous Halloween tunes. 

One of my favorites is Mr. Ghost Goes To Town by the 5 Jones Boys! 

THE FIVE JONES BOYS, an Illinois group that relocated to Hollywood in the 1930s, were part of a long tradition of African-American tight harmony vocal groups that emerged from gospel. Using simple percussion and a careful blending of voices, African American a cappella vocalists were able to duplicate the sounds of a larger band — even impersonating musical instruments (“Mr. Ghost Goes to Town” contains several convincing horn solos). Bands such as the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers were able to find national audiences using such techniques, but none ever duplicated the strangeness of this number. “Mr. Ghost” has an infectious melody based around a deceptively simple bass line, over which the Jones Boys occasionally let out unearthly howls. The lyrics cheerfully tell of a dapper specter’s careful preparation for a night of “stepping.” “He’ll shake his bones to hot saxophones,” the Five Jones Boys inform us, calling to mind Ub Iwerks famous 1929 cartoon “The Skeleton Dance,” in which row after row of corpses pull themselves out of their graves to shimmy to a jazz band. The Jones Boys end the song with a little capper to let listeners know how entertaining this all must be to their titular spook: The lead singer launches into peals of sinister, hysterical laughter." (The Dr. Mysterian blog)

 

The Five Jones Boys on Hollywood Spotlight Show 1935
 

"Who's there, who's there?  Up there on the stairs  Beware, beware 

I hear somebody coming, Up on his toes… Oh look, there he goes 

Mr. Ghost is going to town, He takes his cane, His gloves and his hat 

I'm Mr. Ghost and Tonight I'm gonna shake my bones 

To the tune of them hot saxophones 

Ha ha! Mr. Ghost goes to town!"

 

I'll leave you all with one more Halloween classic....The Beast Of Sunset Strip by Teddy Durant!

 

 



 

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