On Sunday morning, NPR’s Weekend Edition disgusted me with an anemic, unimaginative article on Halloween music. Host Rachel Martin introduced the piece by declaring that, once one considered Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bobby (Boris) Pickett’s Monster Mash, one must be at a loss to find anything else to listen to at this time of year. She then introduced music writer Colin Fleming, who gave us a dreary, scant handful of selections to consider. Other than Camille Saint-Saën’s Danse Macabre, (a Halloween classic in our home) his suggestions left me completely cold. All he could find was one jazz and a couple of obscure pop and rock tunes that suggested creepiness at best. I can, and have done far better myself!
If you’ve read this blog much, you know that music plays a very important role in my family’s life, particularly on the many seasons and celebrations we observe here (see The Soundtrack of Our Homestead). I maintain my own Halloween playlist, and I’m happy to share it with you here. I’ve linked to as many MP3s as possible here. If you’ve got a local independent music store, please consult them!
Since I want to contrast my offering directly to NPR’s attempt, I’ll limit the list to a few key pieces. As a former Program and Music Director at several rock’n’roll stations, I’m used to filling a day’s programming with seasonally appropriate rock songs. I could fill several screens without stepping out of that musical genre. I’ll stick to some key favorites.
Five Man Electrical Band, Werewolf
The Five Man Electrical Band is far better known for their hit, Signs, but for me, this is their very best. it may be the creepiest song I ever listened to on the radio in a darkened room. The opening, cascading piano glissando may be the musical equivalent of a chill running down my spine. Interestingly, the term “werewolf” does not appear anywhere in the lyrics. It was a big hit in the early ’70s, at least in Sitka, Alaska. Now, it never seems to be played anywhere, except here on the “homestead,” every Halloween!
Thurl Ravenscroft, The Headless Horseman
My brother and I wore the grooves out on the original Disney 45 r.p.m. record we had as children (B side: Bing Crosby, Ichabod Crane). This comes from the Disney short, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which I still love to watch at this time of year. The short’s narrator, Bing Crosby, sings a good version of the song in the film. His studio-recorded version of the song is rather enemic compared to Thurl “Tony the Tiger” Ravenscroft’s incredible bass voice and marked enthusiasm. This one’s a rarity. I found it a couple of years ago, to my unending glee.
Warren Zevon, Werewolves Of London
This may be the most well known song on this list. It’s seasonal, it’s comical, and it’s a kick butt dance tune. I once heard a bar band in Juneau segue into Werewolves from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama, to which it owes a heavy musical debt. I thought my head would explode! (Bonus Zevon cut: Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.)
Fleetwood Mac, Rhiannon
This is, as Stevie Nicks introduces in one of their live recordings, “a song about a witch.”
Behind this great classic Fleetwood Mac song, there’s a decent story for Halloween.
Fleetwood Mac, Hypnotized
This pre Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac classic
song about mysteries appeals to me on a personal level, as the first example of paranormal events matches a strange story my grandfather used to tell.
The Canvas Waiting, Ghosts
I notice that in most pop music, references to ghosts often serve as metaphors (such as Alison Krauss, Ghost in This House and the Insiders, Ghost on the Beach). The Canvas Waiting sings about ghosts possibly in a metaphorical sense, but maybe not? I find their song. . . haunting, if you will.
Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Op. 20: Act II: No. 10 – Scene (Moderato)
This piece served as music for the 1930s film, Dracula, that made Bela Lugosi a star and set many of the vampire cliches in American pop culture. It’s especially effective in an old, scratchy, tinny recording. This suggests the theme music from any other scary movie any of us particularly like (Michael Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, anyone?) but I won’t digress further in that direction.
There you have it, pretty much off the top of my head. If I really got into it, I could add a whole lot more. I won’t even go into folk music, a genre full of ghostly stories, such as Connie Dover’s The Holland Handkerchief, Kray Van Kirk’s The Shores of Wales, the many recordings of She Moved Through the Fair (“I dreamed last night/my dead love came in . . .”) and Stan Rogers’s excellent The Witch Of The Westmorland.
I assume that NPR’s erred in asking a noted music writer to present a few minute’s worth of recommendations for the season. They seem to have found a person who doesn’t care about Halloween. Anyone who does, music expert or no, could have given them something far more worthwhile, not to say more accessible to the average listener. Those of us who enjoy the season and listen to music compile those lists through years of annual observance and enjoyment. We would therefore have no need to cobble something together simply to fulfill an assignment.