The round-the-clock television coverage of the Iraqi war is the latest reminder of the awesome power of media. But media not only informs us, it also influences what we think and in recent decades these two functions have become blurred. In fact, I think most people drastically underestimate the ability of the media to mold opinions. The clever use of media can literally induce people to abandon reasonable concepts and replace them with specious theories. This is because of the mind’s susceptibility to suggestion, which can alter people’s perceptions to such a degree that they change behaviors. History is strewn with examples of this almost hypnotic susceptibility, including incidents wherein people were actually moved to take their own lives, as illustrated by the case of the famous “suicide song”; a song appropriately entitled Gloomy Sunday.
The ability of a work of art to incite suicidal tendencies is the phenomenon psychologists call the “Werther Effect.” This theory takes its name from a 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, by the 23-year-old Johann von Goethe. To heighten dramatic tension, Goethe tells the story through letters Werther writes to his friend Wilhelm. Werther, about the same age as Goethe when he wrote the novel, describes his secret love for Lotte, the wife of his friend Albert. The obsessed young man cannot stay away from Lotte. He is tormented by his love for her, which he can neither express nor consummate. Werther pours out his growing anguish in his passionate letters to Wilhelm.
Finally, on an evening when Albert is away, Werther impulsively confesses his love to Lotte, and begins kissing her. The shocked Lotte rebuffs Werther and sends him away, ordering him not to return again. The next day, Werther draws up his will, pens a suicide note, and takes his life. Goethe’s story was so powerful that it was reported that numerous young men in Germany, as well as other parts of Europe, were moved to commit suicide in the same manner as Werther had done.
Like The Sorrows of Young Werther, the Billie Holiday recording of Gloomy Sunday was also reported to have produced suicidal tendencies. With this strange song, it is difficult to separate fact from legend but these reports must have been taken seriously because the song was banned from playlists of radio broadcasters across the USA. The B.B.C. and other European radio broadcasters would also not allow the song to be aired.
Like most black performers of the 1940s, Billie had many blues songs in her repertoire. The main characteristic of the blues is fatalism; a feeling of helplessness against the inexorable forces of fate. In the blues, the loss of a lover is often too much to bear and some songs hint at suicide as a way to end suffering. As an example, consider these lyrics from “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.”
“I gotta right to sing the blues I gotta right to moan and sigh I gotta right to sit and cry Down around the river I know the deep blue sea Will soon be callin’ me.”
But the blues seem tame compared to Gloomy Sunday. Hungarian composers Rezso Seress and Laszlo Javor wrote the original version of the song, with only two stanzas, in 1933. In the first few years after its release, there were no reported problems. But authorities there began to connect the song with suicide cases throughout Hungary. Suicide notes were found with references to the song, and recordings of Gloomy Sunday were found on turntables in the rooms where the suicides had been committed. It was reported that the rash of desperate suicides even included Javor’s former girlfriend and, years later, Rezso Seress took his own life.
As reports of deaths increased, Gloomy Sunday was banned in Hungary. If you read these lyrics of hopelessness and despair, and imagine the mournful musical accompaniment, you can understand why suicidal urges might indeed be induced.
“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? Gloomy Sunday.
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. Death is no dream, for in death I’m caressing you. With the last breath of my soul I’ll be blessing you. Gloomy Sunday.”
Because of the tragic suicides and the subsequent ban of the haunting song, the composers eventually decided to add a third stanza to “soften” the tune’s morbidity. This added stanza refers to the first two stanzas as only a bad dream from which the sleeper has awakened. Upon awakening, the sleeper realizes with relief that his lover is still alive.
When word of the song’s notoriety reached the United States, several recordings were made, the most famous being the Billie Holiday version. It appears that her version was the only one banned — one reason being that many of the others were instrumental only. Although the recording could be purchased, Billie Holiday rarely included Gloomy Sunday in her nightclub performances because most patrons found it simply too depressing. Billie’s rendition has a brooding, mournful quality and the feeling of hopelessness is heightened by the musical accompaniment that is almost darkly dissonant in places.
Adding to the legend surrounding Gloomy Sunday is the recent discovery of a 1947 Savoy recording by an unknown vocalist identified as “Billie Stewart.” On the flip side is In My Solitude, and the record label also identifies the singer as Billie Stewart. The singer’s voice bears a vague resemblance to Billie Holiday’s and some have theorized that Billie simply re-recorded the tune using an alias because of a studio strike that occurred in the 1940s. But research by musicologists has identified vocal patterns and style differences that appear to rule out Holiday. This unusual recording is still being researched.
There is also a 1949 recording by Billie Stewart with some of the same musicians from the 1947 date. So much has been written about Billie Holiday including interviews with former associates and yet there has been no mention of her using an alias on any of her recordings. But musicologists have yet to identify this mysterious “Billie Stewart.”
Suicides like those linked to Gloomy Sunday are not isolated incidents. More recently, the suicide of punk rocker Kurt Cobain led to several horrible teenage suicides. The lyrics of the songs of Cobain’s group, Nirvana, were also bleak and death-obsessed. And like the Gloomy Sunday suicides, these teens left notes referring to Cobain, or played his tapes when they killed themselves.