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Jonathan's Coffeeblog: Gloomy Sunday

7:00 PM Sunday, October 5, 2008

[Dead people in the streets. Everywhere.]

Gloomy Sunday

Yes, it's Sunday, and yes it's gloomy. Not totally gloomy. In fact, the sun is out and it's near the end of a beautiful day. So why am I writing about this? Because I'm feeling kind of gloomy, and there's no better day to write about gloomy Sundays and about the song "Gloomy Sunday," which has an interesting story behind it. If you had read my last blogpost, you might have gotten the idea that I was skeptical about the huge financial bill that was pending before the US Congress, skeptical because the same people who caused the financial crisis were now lobbying hard for a $700 billion-dollar fix. And, although there is much evidence that the bill was opposed by a large majority of Americans, it was passed anyway. And, yes, it's October, autumn already, and yes, it's Sunday, the gloomiest day of the week second only to "blue Monday." My last two blogposts were grim, melancholy, and morose, and now: Gloomy Sunday. Will I ever pull out of this spiritual nosedive? You betcha. But not in this blogpost, which is all about gloom. Not gloom and doom. Just gloom.

So, here's the tale of the song, Gloomy Sunday. It was composed in 1933, the same year that Germany's President Hindenburg was talked into appointing Adolf Hitler as chancellor, though Hitler had been defeated at the polls twice the previous year. A self-taught Hungarian pianist named Rezsö Seress wrote lyrics and melody to a song, Szomorú Vasárnap, which means, well, Gloomy Sunday. Seress' lyrics were gloomy indeed. A sample:

The world has come to its end, hope has ceased to have a meaning/Cities are being wiped out, shrapnel is making music/Meadows are coloured red with human blood/There are dead people on the streets everywhere.

Prescient, perhaps, about what was about to happen to Europe with Hitler as chancellor, but much too gloomy for a pop song. Another Hungarian, Laszló Jávor, came to the rescue with new lyrics. Instead of being a song about the whole world going to hell in a handbasket, it became a song about a tragic woman or man whose beloved has died, and who has decided to join the beloved in death by committing suicide. The song became a huge popular hit, first recorded by the Hungarian singer Pal Kalmar, whose performance can be heard here on YouTube.

Many artists covered the song around the world, perhaps the most famous being the version by the great American vocalist Billie Holiday. Jávor's words, translated into English by Sam M. Lewis, have become immortal, at least in the world of anglophone pop:

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

My own personal favorite version is Jimmy Witherspoon's:

Rumors were spread about huge numbers of people who played the song and then committed suicide, allegedly due to the song. A viral suicide meme? Well, yeah. The Billie Holiday version had a coda tacked on, "Dreaming, I was only dreaming…" One can only guess at how many people killed themselves because of the song, or how many deaths were prevented by the "dreaming" disclaimer in the Billie Holiday version.

One interesting note, however, is the fate of the people involved in this story. Composer Rezsö Seress did indeed commit suicide, by jumping out of a window, but not until 1968. Paul von Hindenburg died of lung cancer 19 months after he swore in Adolf Hitler. An airship named after him famously caught fire while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey in May, 1937. World War II, by Wikipedia estimate, reportedly resulted in 72,771,500 deaths. Dead people in the streets. Everywhere.

OK. Enough gloom. My next Jonathan's Coffeeblog post will be upbeat and cheerful. I promise.

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