What kind of spooky music do you prefer? Are you the type who screams forth their inner demons into the bleak skies while wrathful heavy metal shreds holes in your skull? Are you an ethereal sprite who drifts through solid matter while listening to ancient organ tirades? Are you a down-to-earth Halloween geek who obsesses over the taxonomy of spooky pop rock? Are you a smiling fan of kid-friendly horror humor like “The Monster Mash?” Do you prefer extreme shit like :STALLAGH:?
Or are you the type who gets a chill down their spine when they hear the opening strains of a scratchy record, a solo acoustic guitar, and a bluesy wail to the unholy powers about how the Devil got your woman? No matter what type of horror music aficionado you may be, it seems the dark blues and jazz of the 1920s and 1930s still has the power to unsettle.
As we’ve discussed previously, horror cinema of the the ’20s and ’30s was of a decidedly different flavor. Horror — and cinema in general — tended to play more theatrical and operatic; stories hadn’t yet settled into the groove of pseudo-realistic melodramas where they are today. Silent horror movies reached for something less explicit, yet somehow entirely more ghoulish. The ’30s saw an explosion of monsters in movie theaters, and we were invited to weep when they were destroyed.
From what I can discern from my admittedly limited understanding of musical history, this period’s music was starting to skew toward jazz. Delta blues and jazz records were, in the prior decade, usually only played within black communities and among urban intellectual Bohemians. These new trends followed a slow movement away from folk songs and John Sousa marches (very hot in the 1910s) into more spirited ragtime and jukebox-ready dance music. The work “jukebox,” incidentally, comes from the old Creole-ized Gullah word juke, or jook, which is usually translated as “disorder.” “Juke joints” were out-of-the-way dance bars and brothels where (usually) black people could listen to non-pop, non-white music — and was usually associated by white communities with sex and debauchery.
By the ’20s and ’30s, ragtime was being accepted by the mainstream, and jazz and blues were soon to follow. Into this musical milieu, several enterprising musicians began introducing something that hadn’t really been done before: horror music. Music about the devil, about monsters, about death. Blues was the ideal genre to start wailing about fear and death; there was already a racially-charged darkness associated with the form (thanks in part to the aforementioned juke joints), and it made blues and jazz records feel more esoteric, out-of-the-way, and, as a result, more authentic. This edgy nature also allowed for the exploration of darker and more taboo subjects.
These days, when one discovers an old spooky blues or jazz record, we hear something bracing, unexpected, and pure.
Here are a few notable examples:
“Skeleton in the Closet” — Louis Armstrong (1936)
Performed by a legitimate legend, this playful piece plays more to the funny bone than to the tingling spine, but watching the above video reveals a hint of menace in Armstrong’s eyes. The dance beats swing pretty hard, and when the “skeletons start dancing,” it becomes a great party tune. But there are just enough minor notes and weird keys to make sure you’re a little off-balance at all times.
“I Am the Devil” — Mississippi Sheiks (c. 1930)
If you betray a lover, commit a crime, or openly engage in dark vices, in your mind you may become the Devil. Satan made frequent appearances in old blues and jazz records, and his evil presence would be the catalyst for heartbreak, sin, and death… although it wouldn’t always be a horrible thing.
“Devil Got My Woman” — Skip James (1931)
Any fans of the 2001 film GHOST WORLD know of this tune — a longing, lonely, painful song about heartbreak. When your heart is broken, it can seem as if the loss was a dark orchestration from the Adversary, doesn’t it? This tune is powerful, powerful stuff.
“Devil Dance Blues” — Sippie Wallace (1925)
How is it that songs of fear from the 1920s always sound simultaneously terrifying and upbeat? Sippie Wallace, again encountering the Devil, wails about a dream filled with odd sightings of Ol’ Scratch. Wallace continued to perform her whole life, but her most exemplary work comes from this era, when she seems to have had a more feisty passion.
“Mr. Ghost Goes to Town” — The Five Jones Boys (1936)
Like many songs about ghosts, this one — originally performed by The Hudson-GeLange Orchestra, but popularized by The Jones Boys — is playful and kind of humorous. The song is about an actual ghost — or perhaps just a ghost-like man — arriving in town to cause mischief. It makes the ghost into something personable, and less prone to mayhem… although I think we know what is implied when someone “goes to town.”
“Blue Ghost Blues” — Lonnie Johnson (1927)
Lonnie Johnson is often credited as one of the pioneers of jazz guitar, and he ranks among the best of all blues musicians. This song is about death and the encroaching coldness of perishing in a lonely, fearful state. There are two uses of the word “haunted” here: a house haunted by ghosts, and a heart haunted by melancholy.
“Ghost Creepin’ Blues” — Bessie Smith (c. 1928)
Bessie Smith was one of the reigning queens in this era of blues. I don’t know exactly where the opening riff for this track actually started… the “sneak sneak” music you hear in cartoons, perhaps? I think it may have originated from Ub Iwerks’ animated short THE SKELETON DANCE — but don’t quote me on that.
“This House is Haunted (By the Echo of Your Last Goodbye)” — Roy Fox and His Dance Orchestra (1935)
Although this is a song about loneliness, its creepy melody is ethereal and weird enough to be considered a legitimate horror tune. Like many blues standards, the mood can be dictated by its tempo; I’ve heard fast dance versions of this song, but the original is plaintive and hollow.
“The Jinx Blues” — Casey Bill Weldon (c. 1936)
Being followed or cursed — or yes, jinxed — was a common motif in old blue records, probably because of the way ancient African religions evolved in the U.S. during the dark days of slavery. Many of these beliefs tapped into vengeance and magical spite (as one might predict), and old hoodoo curses were commonplace in the musical culture as a result — so a song about being jinxed rang more true.
“Hoodoo Lady” — Memphis Minnie (c. 1933)
Being jinxed plays right into the kind of person who would cast those spells: The Hoodoo Lady. Hoodoo, voodoo and curses were all in the hands of high priests and priestesses who had the knowledge to hex evildoers. Memphis Minnie sings a song of fear and the horrors of crossing such a priestess.