VitaminQ - a temple of trivia lists and curious words
Vitamin Q: the book!
~ Saturday, April 19, 2003
This a shortened form of an article I wrote on morbid poetry and the 'death' pop songs of the early 60s. If you're looking for the usual trivia and lists, skip on down the page.
Songs of Love and Death (and More Death)
Introducing a selection from Julia A Moore in The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (1930), editors D B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee commented:
The Sweet Singer's verse is concerned to a large extent with total abstinence and violent death -- the great Chicago fire, the railway disaster of Ashtabula, the Civil War, the yellow fever epidemic in the South. She sings death by drowning, by smallpox, by fits, accidents by lightning-stroke and sleigh. "Julia is worse than a Gatling gun," wrote Bill Nye; "I have counted twenty-one killed and nine wounded, in the small volume she has given to the public." She also greatly relishes normal infant mortality, especially in cases where the little victim possesses blue eyes and curling golden hair.
Moore (1847-1920) was known as "The Sweet Singer of Michigan" and, as a poetaster, appeared blissfully unaware of her badness (plus ca change!), just as much so as Scotland's great bad poets, William MacGonagall and the less known James McIntyre, the "Cheese Poet" - who is claimed by Canada where he lived his adult life, but they can't have him - so called for his predilection for painful odes to (you've guessed it) cheese.
Moore was the foremost poet of what became known as the "Graveyard School", poets who mixed puritanical dogma with musings on death which contained a high tide of syrup and a tsunami of gore. Her Selected Poems, Mortal Refrains, is still sought out today by bad verse buffs and those with a bone-licking taste for the grisly. The style was later adopted by Hilaire Belloc for his well-loved Cautionary Tales for Children, but Belloc's black waggery lacked the priggish schadenfreude of the 'real thing'. Here are the poor Chicagoans burning to death:
And sadder still, to hear the moans,
Of people in the flames
Cry for help, and none could get,
Ah, die where they remained.
And one of Julia's many child corpses, Little Andrew (guess what happens next!):
On one bright and pleasant morning
His uncle thought it would be nice
To take his dear little nephew
Down to play upon a raft,
Where he was to work upon it,
And this little child would company be --
The raft the water rushed around it,
Yet he the danger did not see.
In the gloom department, Britain lagged behind the Americans for a while, but this was soon remedied by one Harry Graham, a Coldstream Guard (hence his some time pen-name Col. D Streamer) who, in 1899, published Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, a collection of ditties of the sort that children love but are no longer allowed to read. Graham wrote short, rhymed poems in which someone came, horridly, to grief. For example:
In the drinking well
Which the plumber built her
Aunt Eliza fell.
We must buy a filter.
Both this book and its sequel sold very well and though Graham went on to pen many books of comic verse, it was his morbid ones which were best relished. An early century craze began, with newspapers publishing their own columns of reader-penned gory verses, growing ever more outrageous, named "Little Willies" (from whence, dear fact fans, may spring the phrase "it gives me the willies") after an unfortunate anti-hero of Graham's who fell in the fire. One of these runs thus:
Willie saw some dynamite,
Couldn't understand it quite.
Curiosity never pays;
It rained Willie seven days.
Though the musical sphere was hardly a rain-butt of sunbeams (the blues after all existed in the shimmer and mirk of sex and death), it was to be half a century before the black humour of death was to creep into song writing in such a faddish way, with the advent of the "Death Song" in the late 1950s. In his excellent book The Death of Rock 'n' Roll (Faber 1993), Jeff Pike blames the death of James Dean for the appearance of these songs, since the heroes of many early ones are too beautiful to live and are about to make a car journey that's gonna prove it. The first big hit, Mark Dinning's Teen Angel (basically, girlfriend crushed by speeding train becomes adolescent heavenly harpist), caused a bit of a fuss; it was even banned over here, but it winged its way to the top of the US charts in 1960.
In one of the best known of the death rock songs, Tell Laura I Love Her, we can guess pretty early on what is going to happen, but that's the point: "He saw a sign for a stock car race / A thousand dollar prize it read." Soon a mangled Tommy is serenading his girl from the wreck of his car. The contemporaneous craze for stock car songs probably helped the genre along, but it was the revving of a motorbike (soon to hit a truck) which ushered in the biggest, baddest teen death song of them all, The Shangri-La's number Leader of the Pack, a much parodied number which was so successful and hard to follow that the craze died out with it, seemingly at its height.
The tears were beginning to show
As he drove away on that rainy night
I begged him to go slow
But whether he heard, I'll never know.
Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!
Look out, indeed. Since then, pop lyricists have kept a hand in death's shroud, but this has tended to have more to do with the accompanying imagery. There was Bobby Goldsboro's Honey, Terry Jacks' Brel-inspired Seasons in the Sun and Red Sovine's trucking tear-jerker Teddy Bear, but these and others were visitors from the lands of folk and country, emotion-exploiting genres where death, in Stetson or fool's-cap, is a constant, lurking force.
Of all songs connected with death, the champion is Gloomy Sunday, a 30s Hungarian number which has been connected to the deaths, mainly by suicide, of over 100 people. Its author eventually committed suicide, as did both the members of Badfinger who wrote the classic Harry Nilsson / Mariah Carey weepie Without You. In the heyday of doomy new wave, two teenagers were reported to have committed suicide after listening to the wonderful Morbid Fear by sub-Joy Division group Tunnel Vision, while fellow Northerners Clock DVA provided the soundtrack to Jeffrey Dahmer's stranglings and choppings.
Hard rockers know that the scent of blood is always appealing to the pubescent boys who make up their core audience and have hacked and chopped accordingly. No more so than in Death Metal with its four (supposedly) distinct sub-genres: Norwegian Style, Grindcore, Brutal Black Death and Doomdeath and bands such as Meathook Seed, Fermenting Innards, Filthy Christians and (with a nod to the 60s death songs) My Dying Bride.
It is interesting and ironic, looking at Jeff Pike's introduction to The Death of Rock 'n' Roll to note that, unlike the speeding trains of the death-rock songs, or the child playing too close to the fire in a piece of Graveyard School doggerel, some deaths cannot be so easily anticipated. After a run-through of what we should expect in the following chapters - a chronicle of fast living, midnight string-ups and sundry early deaths - Pike ends, "Please, don't anyone reading this kill yourself." It is signed, Seattle 1993, only months before Kurt Cobain's shotgun (whoever pulled the trigger) brought death back to the hub of rock and roll.
Source: from the book The Message: Crossing the Tracks Between Poetry and Pop (edited by Lumsden / Trousse)