Music

'Gloomy Sunday' is So Sad People Have Called It The Suicide Song

Originally recorded in Hungarian, the song was popularized by Billie Holiday.
IMAGE UNSPLASH/PIXABAY
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When casual conversation turns to the saddest or most depressing songs, music lovers will always have something to say. Personally, I have a few songs in mind, including “The Blower’s Daughter” by Damien Rice, “Weekends” by The Perishers, “Playground Love” by Air, “Hummingbird” by Tom McRae, and anything ever sung by Elliott Smith or Sufjan Stevens.

But then there’s that one song that’s so sad that it has allegedly driven a few people to kill themselves. No, those reports have never really been conclusively proven, but for many years now, people have been calling it “the suicide song.” We're talking, of course, of “Gloomy Sunday.”

Originally written in Hungarian by Rezso Seress (music) and Laszlo Javor (lyrics) in 1933, “Gloomy Sunday’s” English translations—two versions penned separately by Sam Lewis and Desmond Carter—are said to lose much of the original despair and gloom of the original. Still, the popular version we hear today is still pretty morose and is about as far away from anything pleasant or positive as any song in popular music history.

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The song wasn’t really a hit when it came out and would likely have been consigned to the back bins of history had it not been attached to a string of suicide cases in Hungary in 1936. The story goes that more than a dozen suicide cases that happened in that country were in some way connected to the song—either they took their own lives after listening to it or lyrics of the song were supposedly found in the suicide notes they left behind.

“Gloomy Sunday” achieved even more prominence when it was covered by the great songstress Billie Holiday, whose version is still the best known of the more than 60 (as of Wikipedia’s last count) recorded through the years. Other notable adaptations include those by Bjork, Sinead O’Connor, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Sarah McLachlan, Heather Nova, and Marianne Faithfull.

What exactly is it about the song that makes it so controversial? To answer that, we have to listen to the original Hungarian recording (sung by a guy named Pal Kalmar), but then, we’d have to understand the language. But for starters, the English lyrics are pretty morbid and certainly not for the squeamish: 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?

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As if that wasn’t shudder-inducing enough, the second stanza is even more chilling: 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.

Holiday's version added a third verse to the song, perhaps to tone down the extreme melancholy: Dreaming, I was only dreaming / I wake and I find you asleep / In the deep of my heart, dear / Darling I hope / That my dream never haunted you / My heart is tellin' you / How much I wanted you.

Sites like snopes.com that debunk urban legends have largely ruled that the idea that “Gloomy Sunday” inspired the rash of suicides in Hungary and elsewhere is preposterous (although Snopes labels this particular case “undetermined"). Still, that hasn’t stopped people from referring to it as “the overture of death” or some such clever moniker. Whatever you think about this song, it’s certainly one of the more evocative and saddest songs ever put to music (the Holiday version at least). On the other hand, I’m not exactly overcome with a desire to slash my wrists every time I hear it.

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By the way, you should know that Seress, the song’s composer, threw himself out of the window of his apartment in Budapest shortly in January 1968, but one thing absolutely has no connection whatsoever to the other. Right?

Listen to Holiday's version of "Gloomy Sunday" here:

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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