Last weekend I almost died.
I heard the opening two words of Billie Holiday singing Gloomy Sunday and it was touch and go for a few seconds but I survived. Hundreds of others haven’t been so lucky. According to the New York Times Gloomy Sunday has caused more deaths than any other song – over a hundred suicides – leading to the song being banned in the UK, the US and France.
It’s an amazing story. And one that needs to be told.
It starts in 1933 when Hungarian composer Rezso Seress broke up with his girlfriend on a Sunday. In utter despair he pens Gloomy Sunday. The first publisher rejects his song as too depressing. The second commits suicide. But the third sees the potential and publishes Gloomy Sunday throughout Europe.
People start dying immediately. In Berlin a man shot himself after telling relatives he couldn’t get that damn song out of his head. In Rome, an errand boy heard a beggar humming the tune, got off his bike, gave the beggar all his money and jumped from the nearest bridge. In one year alone in Hungary seventeen suicides were found with notes quoting the Gloomy Sunday lyrics.
Of course sceptics dismiss these claims as anecdotal, quoting the rather strange fact that Hungary was so well known for its high suicide rate that seventeen people found dead in one year clutching the lyrics to a song was ‘par for the course.’
In 1936 the song reached New York and was marketed as The Hungarian Suicide Song. Within a week a typist had gassed herself, requesting Gloomy Sunday be played at her funeral.
As the death toll mounted, a third verse was added to the song. A happy verse that was intended to counter the depressive urges of the first two. A verse that said: Wait, it’s all a dream, she’s not dead, there’s no reason to commit suicide and, look, the sun’s coming out!
It didn’t work. The power of Gloomy Sunday wasn’t confined to the lyrics. It was the dirge-like melody. As the BBC found out when they banned Gloomy Sunday but allowed an instrumental version. A recording was made and released on a 78. Which caused panic in North London when a woman kept playing the record over and over. Neighbours banged on her doors, the police were called, the door forced open and … she was found dead inside – of an overdose.
With the BBC, the US and France all banning the song, another attempt to rehabilitate Gloomy Sunday came in 1978 when English psychologist, Sir Edmund Hendricks, suggested an alternative third verse. Sir Edmund was a controversial figure in the world of psychology and a strong proponent of stiff upper lips and ‘tough love.’ His third verse went along the lines of: pull yourself together! You think Sunday’s bad wait until Monday and you have to go back to work!
This re-released version sparked the infamous ‘I don’t like Mondays’ California school shootings.
So, urban legend or frightening fact? The jury, what’s left of them after four hung themselves, is still out.
But judge for yourself.
Gloomy Sunday by Billie Holiday Here’s Billy Holiday singing Gloomy Sunday and, below, are the English lyrics as translated by Sam Lewis. To cut the death toll (this is a responsible blog) I’ve added a new, and very happy, third verse with a tempo change in the middle with a singalong (and whistle-along) ending.
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 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
Happy are bunnies, with white furry fluffy tails
Dolphins are laughing and playing with big blue whales
Flush away the pills. No more arsenic in your meals
Slam the oven door and put the gun back on the wall
Always look on the bright side of life…
Singers who have recorded this song include Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Bjork, Sarah McLachlan and Elvis Costello. Some are still alive. Not composer Rezso Seress however. In 1968, you guessed it, he committed suicide.
So, what’s your saddest song? Mine isn’t ‘Gloomy Sunday’ or even ‘Honey’ by Bobby Goldsboro or ‘Seasons in the Sun’ by Terry Jacks’ or any song by Leonard Cohen. It’s the last verse of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ which should have been banned years ago. Even today I have to run from the room before it gets to that last verse.