"We're All Mad Here…."
Gloomy Sunday was a song written in 1933 by the Hungarian composer Rezső Seress. The Hungarian lyrics were written by the poet László Jávor and its title changed from “Vége a világnak” (End of the world) to “Szomorú vasárnap” (Sad Sunday). According to legend, Seress suggested to his girlfriend that they should get married after he finished writing it. The next day, she poisoned herself leaving a suicide note reading “Gloomy Sunday” (or rather “Sad Sunday”).
The song was first recorded in 1935, in Hungarian by Pál Kálmar in 1935. The recording became popular in Hungary but then a number of suicides were linked with the song. Stories reported in the press included drownings, overdoses and hangings, each time with a connection to the song; the victim having the sheet music about their person, quoting from the lyrics in suicide notes, heard whistling the tune beforehand. As is usual with these urban legends, the truth is difficult to pin down although there certainly seem to have been some suicides associated with the song and the suicide rate in Hungary was high around that time. Historically though, Hungary has a high suicide rate compared with most other countries in any case. Another myth associated with the song is that the ‘Smiley Face’ yellow badges were created to raise morale to counteract the effects of the suicide song. However, there is no evidence of this and, although smiley faces had been drawn in the immediate post-war period, the yellow smiley badges did not appear until the 1960’s; although it is true that their creation was intended as a morale booster.
One undoubted suicide connected to the song, although much later on, was that of Seress himself who, after a failed attempt jumping from a window in 1968, succeeded in taking his own life in a Budapest hospital by strangling himself with a piece of wire.
Due in no small part to the sensational press reporting, the song became known as ‘The Hungarian Suicide Song’ and it’s notoriety has resulted in a large number of recorded versions.
It was recorded in 1936 by Hal Kemp with English lyrics by Sam M. Lewis and retitled Gloomy Sunday. Later that year, the more famous Paul Robeson recorded a version, this time with lyrics by Desmond Carter. Perhaps the most famous recording in the English language was that by Billie Holiday in 1941, which became a mainstream hit. Part of the legend says that the song was completely banned from the radio throughout the world but the truth is rather more limited. The BBC, not unknown for its musical bans, did prohibit all airplay of the song stating that it was detrimental to morale during the war. It did however, allow instrumental versions to be played. Wartime morale or not, the BBC did not lift its ban until 2002, although I personally recall a BBC radio show called ‘Listen to the Banned’, when Gloomy Sunday was played along with other notorious banned music such as the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ and was broadcast in the 80’s.
In recent years, singers as diverse as Elvis Costello, Marc Almond, Sinéad O’Connor and Björk have all recorded versions. Björk also sang her version in 2010 at a memorial service for the fashion designer Alexander McQueen.
Of course, what would an article about a song be without a song? Here, for your entertainment is Gloomy Sunday, in all its glory…