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Dr Varga József via Wiki Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0, Unknown via Wiki Commons 
Dr Varga József via Wiki Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0, Unknown via Wiki Commons 

This Song's a Killer: The Strange Tale of "Gloomy Sunday"

Dr Varga József via Wiki Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0, Unknown via Wiki Commons 
Dr Varga József via Wiki Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0, Unknown via Wiki Commons 

In Vienna, a teenage girl drowned herself while clutching a piece of sheet music. In Budapest, a shopkeeper killed himself and left a note that quoted from the lyrics of the same song. In London, a woman overdosed while listening to a record of the song over and over.

The piece of music that connects all these deaths is the notorious “Gloomy Sunday.” Nicknamed the “Hungarian suicide song,” it has been linked to over one hundred suicides, including the one of the man who composed it.

Of course, this might all be an urban legend.

One thing’s for sure, though. “Gloomy Sunday’s” composer Rezso Seress did take his life, and the success of his greatest hit may have been a contributing factor.

Sad Songs Say So Much

In 1933, the Hungarian-born Seress (née Rudi Spitzer) was a 34-year-old struggling songwriter.

Some accounts have him living in Paris, others Budapest. The story goes that after his girlfriend left him, he was so depressed that he wrote the melody that became “Gloomy Sunday.” A minor-key ribbon of blue smoke, the tune was given an equally melancholy lyric - in Hungarian - by Seress’s friend, the poet Laszlo Javor. Some reports claim it was Javor’s girlfriend who left him, inspiring the song as a poem first. Others say that Seress wrote his own lyric, about war and apocalypse, then Javor later changed it to a heartbreak ballad.

Whatever the case, “Szomorú Vasárnap,” as it was titled, didn’t make much of a splash at first. But two years later, a recorded version by Pál Kálmar was connected to a rash of suicides in Hungary. The song was then allegedly banned. Short of learning Hungarian and trawling through Budapest newspapers from the 1930s, it is impossible to verify any of this (Hungary does historically have one of the higher suicide rates in the world - approximately 46 out of every 100,000 people take their own lives there every year).

But it certainly makes for a juicy story. And it did at the time, too, because music publishers from America and England soon came calling.

Tin Pan Alley tunesmith Sam M. Lewis and British theater lyricist Desmond Carter each wrote an English translation of the song. It was Lewis's version, recorded in 1936 by Hal Kemp and his Orchestra, that caught on.

Sam Lewis, best known for chirpy hits such as “I’m Gonna Sit Write Down And Write Myself A Letter,” stayed close to the bitter despair of the original. Here’s his second verse:

“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
Let them not weep, let them know that I’m glad to go
Death is no dream, for in death I'm caressing you
With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessing you.”

Lewis did make one concession to commerciality by tacking on a third verse that beamed a ray of light into the tune’s darkness. It began:

“Dreaming, I was only dreaming,
I wake and I find you asleep in the deep of my heart, dear.”

In 1941, Billie Holiday recorded the definitive version of “Gloomy Sunday.” Having the hard-living Lady Day associated with the song certainly upped the tragedy ante.

Despite conflicting reports, the song was never officially banned in the U.S., though it was in England. In the early ‘40s, the BBC deemed the song “too upsetting” for the public, then later said that only instrumental versions could be played on the radio.

In 1984, “Gloomy Sunday” was in the news again, by association, when Ozzy Osbourne was taken to court by the parents of a teen who shot himself while listening to the rocker’s song “Suicide Solution.” In 1999, a German film, Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (Gloomy Sunday - A Song of Love and Death), told the story of a doomed love triangle and a song that triggered a chain of suicides. And in recent years, the song has been recorded by such artists as Elvis Costello, Sarah McLachlan and Heather Nova.

What Became of Rezso Seress?

During World War II, he was put in a labor camp by the Nazis, which he survived. After that, he worked in the theater and the circus, where he was a trapeze artist. He later returned to songwriting, though he never had another hit as big as “Gloomy Sunday.”

In fact, the story goes that when the song first became a success, Seress attempted to reconcile with the ex who inspired it. Shortly after, he heard that she had poisoned herself, and there was a copy of the sheet music of the song nearby (in other versions of the story, she left a note with just two words: "Gloomy Sunday"). Whether that’s true or not, Seress himself did commit suicide, in 1968, jumping from the window of a Budapest apartment building.

Seress once wrote of his conflicted emotions towards his morbid masterpiece: “I stand in the midst of this deadly success as an accused man. This fatal fame hurts me. I cried all of the disappointments of my heart into this song, and it seems that others with feelings like mine have found their own hurt in it.”

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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iStock

Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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