Midweek Music Break: Haunting Songs

I noticed a few months back that The Missus and I have a favorite way to describe certain music. Haunting, one of us will say, and the other will nod. A very haunting sound. Haunting lyrics, aren’t they? And so on.

The ingredients which go into making a song haunting, vs. all the other ways it might be described? Beats me. (Meant to ask The Missus this morning but forgot. I’ll check with her later.)

But I think there’s a dark(ish) sound, in the first place, maybe with some eerie instrumental hook — strings often seem to play a part — and the vocals might be artificially vibratoed. The dominant pitch needn’t be creepy-low; I think, for example, that some of Loreena McKennitt’s high-pitched quavering music might be called haunting. (There’s one, “The Mystic’s Dream,” included at the foot of this post.) Maybe it’s got something to do with minor keys or blue notes (possibilities I’d entertain more seriously if I had any idea what the terms, y’know, meant).

Anyway, here are a handful of examples from the oldies stack. The first is “Any Day Now” (1962), performed here by Chuck Jackson.

Any Day Now
(by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard; performed by Chuck Jackson)

Any day now I will hear you say “Goodbye my love”
And you’ll be on your way
Then my wild beautiful bird you will have flown oh
Any day now I’ll be all alone (whoa-oa-oa-oa-oa)

Any day now when your restless eyes meet someone new
Oh to my sad surprise
Then the blue shadows will fall all over town oh
Any day now love will let me down (whoa-oa-oa-oa-oa)

Oh my wild beautiful bird you will have flown oh
Any day now I’ll be all alone

I know I shouldn’t want to keep you
If you don’t want to stay-ay
Until you go forever
I’ll be holding on for dear life
Holding you this way
Begging you to stay

Any day now when the clock strikes “Go”
You’ll call it off
And then my tears will flow
Then the blue shadows will fall all over town oh
Any day now love will let me down ’cause you won’t be around

Don’t fly away my beautiful bird
Don’t don’t fly away

My second nominee du jour would be Johnny Rivers’s “Poor Side of Town,” from 1966:

Poor Side of Town
(Johnny Rivers)

How can you tell me how much you miss me
When the last time I saw you, you wouldn’t even kiss me
That rich guy you’ve been seein’
Must have put you down
So welcome back baby
To the poor side of town

To him you were nothin’ but a little plaything
Not much more than an overnight fling
To me you were the greatest thing this boy had ever found
And girl it’s hard to find nice things
On the poor side of town

I can’t blame you for tryin’
I’m tryin’ to make it too
I’ve got one little hang up baby
I just can’t make it without you

So tell me, are you gonna stay now
Will you stand by me girl all the way now
With you by my side
They just can’t keep us down
Together we can make it baby
From the poor side of town

(So tell me how much you love me)
(Come be near to me and say you need me now)

Oh, with you by my side
This world can’t keep us down
Together we can make it baby
From the poor side of town…

And finally — in a completely different vein — we’ve got Janis Ian’s big hit from 1975, “At Seventeen.” (Since this is pretty much just acoustic and vocals, I offer it as an example whose hauntingness derives from the lyrics and the performer’s voice rather than any studio effects.)

At Seventeen
(Janis Ian)

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
and high school girls with clear skinned smiles
who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth

And those of us with ravaged faces
lacking in the social graces
desperately remained at home
inventing lovers on the phone
who called to say Come dance with me
and murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems at seventeen

A brown eyed girl in hand me downs
whose name I never could pronounce
said Pity please the ones who serve
They only get what they deserve
The rich relationed hometown queen
marries into what she needs
with a guarantee of company
and haven for the elderly

Remember those who win the game
lose the love they sought to gain
in debentures of quality and dubious integrity
Their small-town eyes will gape at you
in dull surprise when payment due
exceeds accounts received at seventeen


To those of us who knew the pain
of valentines that never came
and those whose names were never called
when choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
when dreams were all they gave for free
to ugly duckling girls like me

We all play the game, and when we dare
we cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown
that call and say Come dance with me
and murmur vague obscenities
at ugly girls like me, at seventeen

What songs haunt you? Is it just their subjects? What is it about their sound?

Send to Kindle


  1. Damn – I hadn’t heard that Janis Ian song in 35 years, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. That might be one criterion for ‘haunting’, I suppose.

    I don’t see it with your other two picks, great songs though they are. I guess a lot of it is down to when you first heard them and what resonances they evoke. There have been a few songs, I think (can’t readily compile a list now), that struck me on first hearing as ‘haunting’ in some way. But I think, in general, the hauntingness comes more from the personal circumstance than the qualities of the song itself.

    Things that come to mind for me are The Prophet’s Song from Queen’s ‘A Night At The Opera’ Album (similar to Bo Rap in its conception, but way more intense and spookier), Marionette by Mott The Hoople (same-ish era; probably a rip-off of Queen, but…), and, more recently, Common People by Pulp (perhaps not so much ‘haunting’ as deeply resonant with my own perception of the world; hmm, Disco 2000 from the same album possibly has even more of the that’s-too-close-for-comfort creeping you out factor).

    This is an insomnia-inducing post. (As if I needed any more of that!)

    • Isn’t “At Seventeen” great? Among other virtues, it’s a literate song; I have no way of knowing, but I’d be willing to bet that no other pop song in history has ever included — or will, in the future — the word “debenture” without sounding forced.

      “At Seventeen” I can pin down to a particular period in time — somewhere around the mid-’70s when it came out, maybe a little later; it was a favorite of a girl I had a crush on at the time, and I can never quite dissociate it in my mind from that relationship. But I think it has something in common with the other two in a, uh, musical (or at least sonic) effect. I just can’t put my finger on it.

      And you will not be surprised that I recognized not even one of your choices — songs or albums. I barely know Queen, and I guess “Bo Rap” is “Bohemian Rhapsody,” right? I shall have to hunt the others down.

      Your phrase the that’s-too-close-for-comfort creeping you out factor makes me think we may have stumbled into something like an uncanny valley of music.

      • The Uncanny Valley Of Music (he said, experimenting with more sophisticated HTML, and not enjoying it one little bit) sounds like it could be an album title… or a category tag for a new strand here on the blog.

        By the by, there seems to be a new quirk on ReCaptcha (new anti-spambot feature, or just a passing quirk of the text samples being used?) where two or three of the letters are whited out, as though with liquid paper. Strange. And very tricky to read.

    • Just realized I’d been blithely embedding videos for everyone but you! (I think you distracted me with the discussion about italics-vs.-emphasis.)

      Here’s Pulp’s “Common People”:

      The video itself, I’m sorta lukewarm about. But the sound is absolutely haunting; it’s got something to do, I think, with a trace of an echo effect…

  2. One gripe about the new look here: the ‘comment’ button is at the end of – and indistinguishable from – a long list of category tags. And it isn’t labelled with the word ‘comment’. It took me quite a while to find it.

    I think having it in a different position, and/or highlighted/differentiated from nearby text would be a good tweak.

    Also, the comment window doesn’t currently seem to accept HTML tags, at least not for italics – which I tried to use for the song titles in the previous comment.

    • I haven’t yet found anything that would enable me to change the word “Responses” to “Comments.” But I tinkered with the appearance of that link — bordering it, giving it a background distinct from the rest of that block of text, floating it to the right, and making it sort of 3D. Does that help?

      About the italics… you seem to have stumbled upon an interesting, well, I don’t know if it’s a feature or not. But this theme apparently is so up-to-date that it insists on using only “correct” HTML — “correct” per the most recent versions. I see you used the <i> tag in the comment; that tag is no longer official. (It’s been deprecated, as they say.) To italicize text, you should now use the <em> tag (“em” for emphasized (and note that I used the updated tag for the word “emphasized” there).

      (The same will be true if/when you’re used to creating boldface with the <b> tag. The new-and-improved version is <strong>.

      All of which said, I may have a fix for it, so you can hang onto what you’re used to. (And at some point I want to explore adding a little row of buttons along the top of the comments box to make italicization, hyperlinking, etc. more easy anyhow.)

      • Yes — that little hack seemed to work okay. Your song titles are italicized now. :)

      • Thanks for the fix.

        I fail to see how requiring more typing can be an improvement to the HTML system!

        • It’s a philosophical sort of debate among the committee which sets HTML standards, the browser manufacturers, and of course Web developers and designers. The intention is, as much as possible, to remove from the HTML standard any tags (technically “elements”) which specify how something is to look, relegating all appearance-related matters to stylesheets. Instead, in HTML they want to emphasize meaning over appearance. To emphasize a word or phrase or a longer passage — that adds meaning. To italicize text specifies “display it at an angle, not straight up-and-down,” which has no inherent meaning. (If you’ve seen the phrase “the semantic Web” bruited about, this is part of that discussion.)

          As a practical matter, browser makers have more or less standardized on italicization to connote emphasis. But they’re free to choose some other alternative if they want — boldface or contrasting colors or whatever — and if they do so, they’ll still be in compliance with the standard.

          (I’m not arguing one way or the other, just describing.)

          Individual Web developers can override the standard using various techniques. What I did here was add an item to the site’s stylesheet, which says “if you encounter a quote-unquote non-existent <i> tag anywhere, display it in italics.” So you can use either the official <em> tag at RAMH, or the formerly official <i> tag. As you will.

          • P.S. Oh, also: using “emphasize” over “italicize” makes plain how a screen-reading browser (vs. a conventional visual-only one) is to interpret a passage.

  3. “Any Day Now” was my high school anthem, the song I always wanted to hear played on any jukebox and over and over again on my parents’ coffin-sized cabinet stereo system. Of course, I was “a rock, an island” when that any day came. I’m sure I was entirely too serious; as proof, I was a Gene Pitney fan, too. He was such a beautiful boy and so tragic, or so I imagined. He certainly wouldn’t have flown-oh. Doot doot’n dwah, shoo-bee doo-bee.

    You left out Del Shannon’s My Little Runaway so I’m playing it for you on my mental stereo. It meets all the criteria, including minor keys, falling tones at the end of each measure, and lots of echo pedal. Très haunting!

    • Here y’go, Nance:

      As an afterthought, I’d also throw in Bobby Darin’s own version of “If I Were a Carpenter.” (Don’t care for the Johnny Cash/June Carter Cash version as much; it lacks the weird instrumentation.)

      • We developed a scarily addictive new game in the bar last night: be the first to call out the name of the artist performing each song on the playlist; hit five in a row and win a shot. (I got three free drinks, but the number of times I crashed out on 4 correct calls was too many to count! And I found myself pitted against a young American tourist who had an uncanny ability to recognise the opening of Rolling Stones songs in one tenth of a second.)

      • I did particularly well when we hit a little run of ’50s hits. Hadn’t heard Runaway in years, but spotted it in a second or two!

        What is up with that instrumental break (on some kind of organ!)? Not so much haunting as just plain WEIRD!

        • It turns out (on further investigation) that the organ was actually something called the Musitron, a sort of proto-synthesizer invented by Del Shannon’s partner (and the song’s co-writer), Max Crook. There’s a lengthy writeup about the Musitron at the Del Shannon Web site. Favorite quote:

          Crook developed a spring echo reverberation unit custom-built from garden gate springs and other mechanical parts to create an echo chamber which, though crude, produced an amazing and natural echo sound resembing the acoustics of a tile-plated bathroom.

  4. How about “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry. Along those lines is “Goin’ Down” sung by the Monkees. I know, I know, the Monkees? But this song haunts me for reasons not necessarily mentioned above. Or how about “Stranger in Paradise” sung by Tony Bennett? Just my two cents…

    • I see that “Goin’ Down” makes several YouTube appearances. (Several are live performances by Mickey Dolenz. Maybe my “favorite” is the one overlaid on clips from the TV show, an episode called The Monstrous Monkee Mash. Those krazee kids.) But haunting? I don’t know. For my taste, anyhow, it’s too… frenetic to be haunting.

      But “Ode to Billie Joe” is a GREAT recommendation. Especially with that descending warble of strings, down towards the very end at about 4:05:

      And it helps that the lyrics still mystify, suggesting rather than telling.

  5. I might find the “Seventeen” song haunting, but for the most part songs from that era don’t resonate with me. I’m an 80s child after all.

    Music from “Twin Peaks” is haunting to me. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBdH6SjBEX8

    Music from David Lynch. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZJhtFMUXes&feature=related

    Music from Depeche Mode. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snILjFUkk_A

    Music from Crowded House. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQOlwMKpmvQ

    Music from Massive Attack. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbe3CQamF8k&feature=fvsr

    and a little something from Murray Gold.

    That should give you an idea.

    • Oh yeah. Pretty much the entire Twin Peaks soundtrack would be on the list. And Massive Attack’s “Angel” definitely qualifies, I think!

      Hard to separate the haunting quality from what the video looks like, maybe, but I closed my eyes and it still works.

      (Btw, I just read about one of the guys in the group that he’s worked with Angelo Badalamenti. Huh.)

  6. Oh, and I can’t help myself. Two more.

    Alex Parks. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rj5HWtnzYuY

    And this PJ Harvey. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbq4G1TjKYg&feature=related

    Okay. That’s enough.

  7. I’m addicted to haunting songs…well, my kind of haunting.

    Like Portishead. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=niIcxMuORco&feature=related

    By the by, it isn’t the videos that much interest me. They’re just the only ways I know to link to the songs. Umm. As far as I can tell these links won’t all show up as big videos…am I wrong? That isn’t my plan. Just wanted the links…

    • Yeah — they’re the only way for commenters to link to music (unless you’ve got an MP3 at your site, in which case you can just include that URL). I didn’t realize that this question would trigger an avalanche of interesting suggestions from everybody; I’d thought that as people suggested candidates, I could embed the videos in my replies. But the page would be extravagant if I embedded them all. :)

      I did notice though that all your comments but this one got put into the moderation queueueueue. Apparently there’s a setting which does this automatically for any comment including N or more links — probably N = 2. I’ll bump that up a notch or two to prevent the problem in the future.

      • Really, I’m glad you didn’t embed these videos. Most of them I don’t like–though the “Angel” video, which I saw for the first time when I found the song on youtube, did keep my attention. I even referenced it in class today to explain the idea of simmering tension.

        Per an earlier reply, I’d say it is interesting how you’d describe a song as incantatory whereas I’d still say haunting…leading to the question of how to define such words.

        And I didn’t know one guy from Massive Attack work with Badalamenti. Guess that makes it clear what kind of music I’m drawn to…

  8. John – Not only am I enjoying your post (gawd I love Ian and Gentry) but it’s also been fascinating watching the comment thread accumulate haunting melodies, with their percussive layers and echoing.

    Love Pulp’s Common People–and even more so, the Pulp/William Shatner mashup version.

    I’m thinking American Beauty (soundtrack). I’m thinking, especially, of Thomas Newman’s Dead Already, and Because (performed by Elliot Smith), by the Beatles. I have a feeling I’m going to be haunted by desolate pauses and falling minors all weekend.

    • Oooh, “Dead Already” is a great choice!

      Because the song is wordless, it seems to invite free association… certainly among YouTube uploaders. Just now, I found a whole range of interpretations, most involving rapid slide-show-style allusive montages of still photos — political, on-again/off-again erotic, claymation (!), and plain old Huh? :) Here’s one of the latter:

      • Ah, thanks for those, John. It’s interesting to see the images that music evokes–so varied. That first video is rather disturbing, while the plain ole is a huh! (I like how the old manual typewriter was working into it, though).
        And ditto on Froog’s mention of Washburn–she’s one of my favorites, and has an inspiring story. ;)

  9. Another I wanted to cite was Abigail Washburn’s version of Who’s Gonna Shoe…?, which was on her first solo album. Unfortunately, I can’t find it anywhere on YouTube.

    However, there is this, from the same album, Eve Stole The Apple (unfortunately the sound level is very low):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEVq7Gji744

    Most of her songs have that ‘haunting’ quality for me (well, actually, most bluegrass does), something about the somewhat frail but emotionally intense quality of her voice… and the ringing tones of a simply plucked banjo (she still hasn’t got much of a technique on the thing, but I love the sound of her playing).

    While searching, I turned up this version of Who’s Gonna Shoe? by Patti Page; a different kind of ‘haunting’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdrRppr28ow

    • Here y’go:

      [Below, click Play button to begin Who’s Gonna Shoe. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:47 long.

      Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


      (Hope that works; I haven’t previously been able to include these little player widgets in comments…)

      You do know that Washburn’s got some serious China connections, right???

      Your mentioning bluegrass’s haunting qualities made me think of Matewan, John Sayles’s great film about the coal-mining labor battles in the early 20th century. (I was just talking about the film with Nance a few days ago, in another context, so maybe it was just still fresh in my head.) I haven’t seen the film in years, but the soundtrack is WONDERFUL. One of the featured performers is an a capella singer with the unforgettable name of Hazel Dickens. Here she is (again, assuming the audio player works!) singing “Hills of Galilee,” which I think plays over the closing titles:

      [Below, click Play button to begin Hills of Galilee. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 4:57 long.

      Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


  10. Thanks, John, it’s great to hear that again. (I have mislaid the CD!)

    Yes, I’ve met Abby a couple of times. She comes over to play a few gigs in China pretty much every year.

    That song has particular resonances for me because of a misfired love affair. I finally got together with one of the great loves of my life (after a month or two of agonising cat-and-mouse) after going to one of Abby’s gigs with her. And when it all went horribly wrong not too long afterwards, I found that song was somehow the one that connected me to the pain.

    I think I posted this on The Barstool ages ago, but perhaps before you were ‘on board’: on her second or third visit here a local arts & media website, Danwei, filmed this jam session with Beijing-based Mongol folk-rock band Hanggai – on the rooftop of of bar just a few minutes from where I live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvgJ9Hg7T4Q

  11. Sorry, I forgot to thank you last night for the song from Matewan. I was suddenly appalled by the realisation that I haven’t seen anything by John Sayles since the – brilliant! – Men With Guns a dozen or so years ago. I’ve got some serious catching up to do.

    I was dismissing your notion of ‘Fantasy Selves’ the other day, never really find myself hankering to be anyone else; but…. Mr Sayles might just be an exception.

    • Seems to me that John Sayles was one of the first recipients of a so-called “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation… Ah, not quite (thanks per usual, Wikipedia!) — he got his in 1983; the first awards went out in ’81. Amazing — at that point he’d written three horror(ish) films, good though they were, but directed only one film, …the Secaucus Seven (although he’d written a few books of fiction).

      Since Men With Guns, I have seen (and very much liked!) Sunshine State and The Spiderwick Chronicles (which he co-wrote), but I’ve mostly strayed from him, too. Hmm.

  12. Oh, what a great post, and I’m so terribly behind, so late getting to it.

    What songs *don’t* haunt me? One can be haunted for so many reasons.

    Have you ever heard Jump, Little Children sing “Cathedrals”? Prepare to weep. There is a moment in that song (the humming part) that slays me every time. OH! THE CHORD CHANGES! — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wt-2Y2fV6gU. (That’s the only video I can find. Please disregard the almost unforgivable misspelling of “cathedrals.” Ack. Who made that?)

    I think I read somewhere that some show like Dancing With the Stars or Dancing with Survivors or Dancing with Big Brother or what-the-hell-ever had someone dancing to this song. And that made me feel like the rest of the world found out my little secret, this little, unknown favorite song of mine for so, so many years. Bummed me out, as unfair as I was being. But such is life.

    The new design here looks great!

    Jules, still getting caught up on blogs and email

Speak Your Mind