Nick Bollinger checks a tribute to arguably the most miserable song ever written.
I first heard the song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ on a compilation of Billie Holiday, and it stood out – even in a set that included ‘Strange Fruit’ – as a song of exceptional bleakness. It wasn’t just the lyric, in which the singer is clearly mourning for a deceased lover, but equally the melody. I’d never heard a tune that wallowed quite so much in its minor-ness. The song is widely associated with Holiday, though she didn’t write it, nor was she by any means the first person to record it. The song comes from the pen of Rezso Seress, a Hungarian pianist who, in 1933, was living in Paris. Seress’s original title for the tune translated as ‘The World Is Ending’ and his lyrics may have been inspired by the worsening political state of Europe at the time. But the original lyrics had already been reworked by poet Laszlo Javor by the time of the song’s first Hungarian recording – as ‘Sad Sunday’ - the following year.
Pal Kalmar made the first Hungarian recording of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ from 1934. Both that and the Holiday version appear as bonus tracks on a curious new compilation devoted entirely to this rather miserable song. The album is called Hungarian Noir: A Tribute To Gloomy Sunday. It’s mainly comprised of recent interpretations of the song, from all over the world. And perhaps it’s real achievement is in showing how many different varieties of misery there are.
There’s Polish singer Kayah, and a version that seems to be riffing off the original lyric, by Brazilian rapper GOG. There are also purely instrumental versions, like the solemnly beautiful arrangement by Argentine accordion player Chango Spasuik. And if Spasuik gets to the tragic heart of the matter, there are other versions that find an almost jaunty element inside the despondent song, like the version by Colombian theatre band Bambarabanda.
And there’s half a dozen other readings on this collection, including an a cappella treatment by Cuban group Vocal Sampling. Still, you get the idea. It’s wall-to-wall Gloomy Sunday, and if that’s your idea of fun Hungarian Noir is the record for you. I’m wary, though: even the label responsible for this compilation has a note on its cover that warns: this music may be hazardous to your health. Listener precaution is advised.
Songs featured: Gloomy Sunday/Triste Domingo/Szomoru Vasarnap.
Hungarian Noir: A Tribute To The Gloomy Sunday is available on Piranha/Southbound.