Southern Gothic: Ten unconventional songs to put you in the Halloween mood
“The trees are bending over, the cows are lying down, the autumn's taking over, you can hear the buckshot hounds.…” – Tom Waits
Autumn is upon us, ladies and gentlemen. For us anomalists, it feels as though we have slipped into an alternate dimension for three weeks, another universe where everyone around us finally gives a damn about the same things we do.
Being a musician and a Fortean, I’ve compiled a list of my top ten personal favorite Halloween tunes. A lot of these are obscure, but the good news is that online recordings exist for each (feel free to buy these artists and buy their albums!).
There are a lot of tunes whose radio time skyrockets this time of year; those aren’t the songs that interest me. I’ve selected ten macabre tunes that paint a picture and put me in a perfect October mood. To that end, anyone expecting Thriller or Devil Went Down to Georgia to make an appearance should look elsewhere—I love those tunes as much as the next guy, but that’s not what I look for when trying to immerse myself in the Halloween mood.
10) Red Right Hand – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Let Love In”
Cave is one of America’s most underappreciated musicians, and he knocks it out of the park with this badass, off kilter blues track. Based on a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Red Right Hand ostensibly references the vengeful hand of God… however, the lyrics impart a more sinister meaning. A clandestine meeting with a dark, powerful figure who is interested in your soul?
The incredible Guillermo del Toro leaned into this interpretation by including Pete Yorn’s cover in his 2004 film Hellboy (after all, Big Red is known for his massive right hand). The song—covered by PJ Harvey this time—also appears in del Toro’s next feature, Crimson Peak (released October 16).
9) Spooky Uke – Michael Wagner, “Love Songs & Miscellany”
I first played with Mike Wagner in 2008, and have loved his music ever since. His use of extended techniques on the ukulele is impressive, and his writing is especially evocative. Spooky Uke is Mike’s signature song, and chronicles the death of someone by… something. It’s vague, and as such you can graft anything you want onto the song.
My thoughts always skew toward the macabre happening in the Wild West, something along the lines of 2008’s fun B-movie The Burrowers. The last line of the song always gets me: “The rising dust telling us that they’re back / Best run and hide / Go tell my boy to bring me my gun / And stay inside.”
Bonus: Ain’t Nobody Upstairs is a fun ghost revenge tune, but he hasn’t recorded it yet. See him live and request it!
8) Murder in the Red Barn - Tom Waits, “Bone Machine”
Like Nick Cave, Tom Waits deserves so, so much more love than he gets. I understand that he isn’t easy to listen to all the time, but nobody likes their first sip of bourbon, either. Sometimes the finer things in life take a while to acclimate towards.
In any case, Murder in the Red Barn is like a slice of southern gothic heaven. The mood is apparent from the start, with banjo plucking away, the rocking chair—is he smacking on gasoline cans? It’s all perfect. The song sets up an unsettling conspiracy, or at least a dark secret, eating away at everyone in a small farming community.
Bonus: If you’re listening to “Bone Machine,” stick around for Black Wings, a spiritual companion piece to MitRB that tells of a dark stranger with supernatural powers.
7) Loa Dance – Half Dozen Brass Band (Bigfoot Brass Band), “Cold Six”
Maybe it’s cheating to include songs I wrote on a list like this, but hey—it’s my list, and I do like this tune. After all, I tend to only write stuff I like hearing.
I intended this song to evoke clandestine voodoo ceremonies; the loa are voodoo spirits who possess followers during frantic dances. This particular video is from our Mardi Gras 2012 show at the Georgia Theatre—you can purchase the studio recording is available on our album "Cold Six."
6) Old Man Cabbage – Blair Crimmins & the Hookers, “The Musical Styling of Blair Crimmins & the Hookers”
I’ve been fortunate enough to play with Blair Crimmins & the Hookers, and I’m always impressed by the depth and breadth of musicianship in the group. The world needs to know about these guys! As you can tell from the video, the subject matter in this song punches all my buttons… ghosts, unconventional ragtime, circus imagery, the works.
Check out Blair’s schedule and music here. I’m excited to play with them again this Halloween!
5) Sugarland – Papa Mali, “Do Your Thing”
This is probably the least “spooky” song in this list. Because of its use in American Horror Story: Coven, however, I’ve been unable to hear this tune without thinking about voodoo.
From the opening solo, which sounds like some old blues man picking on the front porch of his bayou shack, to the ominous humming chorus, the track just exudes mystery and is the perfect accompaniment to a southern Halloween.
4) Lost Souls of Southern Louisiana – Dirty Dozen Brass Band, “Open Up (Whatcha Gonna Do for the Rest of Your Life?)”
Noticing a New Orleans trend yet? I love everything about that town and, living in the deep south, have long been fascinated by voodoo, hoodoo, and the like (as an aside, I feel like Hollywood hasn’t made enough voodoo horror films. The only good ones I can think of are Angel Heart and The Skeleton Key).
As the patriarchs of the modern brass band movement, I’ve long admired the Dirty Dozen, and this 15-minute-long tone poem tells a story that would be perfectly at home in St. Louis Cemetery.
3) Black Cat Shadow – Papa Legba
Yep, another one of my songs. Sorry! I’m especially proud of this tune, and would love to do a studio recording of it some day. Black Cat Shadow outlines a fun story I cooked up: thief meets a voodoo man, they rob a riverboat, thief gets sent to prison, is released, and goes looking for the treasure they buried, only to discover his old partner wants nothing of the sort.
Unfortunately, my CMS is weird about posting Soundcloud links in individual blog posts. Click the picture above to listen to Black Cat Shadow.
I’m working on putting together a new incarnation of this group, and I think we’re pretty close now to having personnel locked. I cannot wait.
2) Don’t Go Into That Barn – Tom Waits, “Real Gone”
I know, I have two Tom Waits songs on here. too. My list, my rules.
In many ways, this song deserves the #1 slot, because the actual act of listening to it is unsettling. Even on a low-fi album like “Real Gone,” full of grunts and groans, Don’t Go Into That Barn stands out as particularly grim. From what I can tell, it tells the story of a haunted old slave barn, closing with a one-sided conversation of an escaped slave along the Underground Railroad (I may be wrong. If can offer an alternate opinion, or point to a quote where Waits says something different, please do so!).
It’s a trifecta of horror: visceral horror of listening to the song, the horror of slavery, and the horror of the spirit world. My favorite lyric, which chills me to the bone every time I listen to it: “When the river is low, they find old bones / When they plow they always dig up chains.”
1) Shadows – Dr. John, “Television”
There are about a dozen Dr. John tunes that deserve this spot. Hell, I had a Voodoo Party one year (not a Halloween Party, dammit, a Voodoo Party), and played the entire "Gris-Gris" album—it’s chilling and almost plays like an ethnomusicology record. However, Shadows is unsettling in a way that Dr. John’s usual voodoo tunes aren’t.
It’s playful, sneaky, and vague in a way that really seems to capture a lot of the Trickster phenomena that permeates Forteana. Whatever the narrator of this song is, it is everything and nothing; everywhere and nowhere. As someone who studies the unexplained, this song nails the phenomena in a way nothing else has.